Robson Sharuko in Cairo, Egypt
Egypt 1-0 Zimbabwe
GOAlKEEPER, Eddie Sibanda, produced a string of good saves but the Warriors conceded a poor goal to start their 2019 Afcon finals campaign on a losing note before a packed Cairo International Stadium last night.
The big goalie, playing because George Chigova was suspended, had an inspired show and, sadly, his night ended prematurely late in the game when he was pulled out because of injury.
On a night when left back Devine Lunga also came of age with a brave and good performance against one of the world’s best players, Mohamed Salah, the Warriors should be disappointed they couldn’t get even a point from this game.
The goal that made the difference was one they could have avoided while later, in the second half they played with authority, substitute Evans Rusike had a fine chance but could not direct his header home.
Khama Billiat, who passed a late fitness test after a week in which he was troubled by injury, then shot wide from a very tight area and in time added on, it was the hosts who were on the ropes pleading for the match to end.
To his credit, Billiat was the liveliest Warrior upfront.
Given all the turmoil in their camp on the eve of the match, this was a commendable show by the Warriors who, for most of the second half, had silenced the capacity 80 000 crowd inside the stadium.
It’s hard to say if the Egyptians had an off day or the Warriors did the basics right, save for a lack of penetration upfront, and if they can play as well as they did in the second half, they have a reason to believe they can still make it out of the group.
Substitute goalkeeper, Elvis Chipezeze, also pulled out a fine save from Salah towards the end.
Warriors edged the second half and had silenced the packed stadium but now and again didn’t have the final through ball to create clear-cut chances with Egyptian goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy largely untroubled.
Coach, Sunday Chidzambwa, brought in Rusike and Talent Chawapiwa for Nyasha Mushekwi who was holding his hamstring as he walked out, and skipper Knowledge Musona.
“It was a game of two halves, we didn’t play well in the first half,” said Chidzambwa.
But the big positives for the Warriors were the fine performance by Sibanda, made four good saves, including two outstanding ones, and a vintage show by Lunga.
The Pharaohs flew out of the blocs with both rage and urgency and were dominant in the first 20 minutes, creating a number of chances.
One of the chances should have been converted when Salah broke free on the right, drew the ball into the box but the hosts fluffed a great opportunity.
Zimbabwe’s midfield appeared overawed and in a daze during that opening phase with Arsenal’s Mohamed Elmeny seemingly calling the shots while Marshall Munetsi was giving away a lot of possession.
But the engine room improved markedly later with Marvelous Nakamba showing authority and some good touches while Munetsi improved after the break,
The channels were not giving the avenues they were looking for in the first period and, now and again, the Warriors kept sending high and speculative balls which tall and disciplined Egyptian defence easily dealt with.
With Mushekwi ploughing a lone furrow in attack, the Warriors needed something special to open the Pharaohs defence, an X-factor probably from either Musona or Billiat but, in the first half hour, it was missing.
As time passed 80 000 hearts inside the stadium were growing impatient, Salah was finding supply but no one was converting his efforts and when the Warriors got dead balls in good positions, they were wasting them.
Salah’s deft touch was a constant reminder of the danger he possessed but Lunga was proving a match and, because of his better defensive qualities, the decision to start him ahead of Ronald Pfumbidzai was an inspired one.
When the goal came, after 41 minutes, Musona was at fault, gifting the Pharaohs possession on the left and when he was given a second chance to clear, was again caught wanting.
Turkey-based forward Trezeguet took full advantage, created space down the channel and curling effort was too good for Sibanda as the Warriors conceded a very disappointing goal to hand the hosts the initiative.
Four minutes after the break Sibanda made a super one-handed flying save for a corner to continue his good night.
Zimbabwe appeared to start the second half better but the decisive pass was always either heavy or misplaced and when they found a way into the box Musona’s effort was blocked.
The Pharaohs’ efficiency was when they were without the ball, pressing hard and keeping Billiat under watch which meant chances were few and far between for the Warriors.
But, in the last 20 minutes, the Warriors were the better team and could have picked something from this game as the Pharaohs grew desperate.
Sibanda (Chipezeze 80th min), Darikwa, Lunga, Mudimu, Hadebe, Munetsi, Nakamba, Karuru, Musona (Chawapiwa) Billiat, Mushekwi (Rusike)