Robson Sharuko in Cairo, Egypt
TWO months after insinuating Zimbabwe were the weakest team in Group A of the 2019 Afcon finals, Uganda’s French coach Sebastein Desabre is singing a different tune ahead of his Cranes’ showdown against the Warriors here on Wednesday that could define either team’s fate at this tournament.
A strong performance by the Warriors in their opening Nations Cup game against hosts Egypt, in a losing cause, appears to have changed the mindsets of many here, including Desabre, whose Cranes started their campaign on a flier after deservedly beating the DR Congo 2-0 on Saturday.
If the Cranes win on Wednesday, they will virtually book their place in the second round in a tournament where the top two teams in the group, and the four best runners-up, will remain here to compete in the knockout stages.
Only eight teams, the six bottom teams and the two third placed teams who would have an inferior points or goal tally to the best four third-placed teams, will also be eliminated.
The Warriors have never qualified beyond the group stages of this tournament while the resurgent Cranes, who ended a 19-year wait for a return to the AFCON finals two years ago, won their first Nations Cup game since 1978, with a 2-0 win over a lifeless DRC.
The quality of the Ugandan performance, in a game in which they would possibly have won by a very wide margin, has caught the eye of many here, but Desabre, who suggested the Warriors would be the weakest Group A team during the build-up to this tournament, isn’t taking anything for granted now.
“Zimbabwe seems the least lucky team of the group, but I know their squad and their great qualities,” Desabre told Goal in April in comments that provoked outrage back home among the Warriors’ fans.
“The group is complicated even though Egypt is the favourite to top it and our team will compete for the second place spot.”
However, after the events on Friday and Saturday, the Frenchman appeared to be singing a different tune ahead of his men’s battle against the Warriors.
A lone goal by Trezeguet, after a mistake by Warriors’ skipper Knowledge Musona, gave the Pharaohs victory on Friday night, while goals from Patrick Kaddu and Emmanuel Okwi handed the Cranes victory over DRC.
The Uganda coach could have been one of those surprised by the Warriors’ strong showing against the Pharaohs on Friday night, especially their powerful second half performance, which should have been rewarded with at least a goal.
“We have to work harder because there are two big games ahead, Zimbabwe and Egypt,” Desabre said. “We have our plans. We know that you need a minimum of four points to reach the next round.
“We only have three points now and the players know that. To claim a point against Zimbabwe and against Egypt won’t be easy and then the three points we have already. The opponents are not easy sides.
“Winning two matches in the group stage means qualifying for the next round [without doubt]. Last time (Gabon 2017), we could not get through, so this time, we are aiming to reach the next round, and we’ll see what happens next.”
It’s a game the Warriors can’t afford to lose, although a draw, in the worst case circumstances, could still be a good result in the event they beat the DRC in their final match.
Incredibly, the Warriors can also lose on Wednesday and still make the second round with a win over the Congolese, in the event the results in other groups favour them, but their fate would no longer be in their hands.
A number of Warriors will have to be monitored this week after they received knocks in that bruising battle against the Pharaohs, with goalkeeper Eddie Sibanda forced to leave the contest prematurely, while there were concerns for Nyasha Mushekwi’s hamstring, the impressive Khama Billiat and even midfield star Marvelous Nakamba.
Warriors’ team manager Wellington Mpandare said they also watched the match between Uganda and the DRC and picked some vital lessons from their analysis.
“We watched that game, they play as a team the Ugandans, they have some physical players and they are not afraid to shoot at goal when they get opportunities,” said Mpandare.
“They also have aerial strength and are very good with headers, but that’s the quality you get at such tournaments and you just have to be ready to find a way to deal with it and also play to your strength.
“We have a number of players who need to be assessed at our full training session today (yesterday), I spoke to Eddie and Nyasha and they have not been complaining about their injuries getting worse.
“Nakamba and Khama also received some knocks, but we will see how it goes so that we are in good shape for the game on Wednesday.”
Billiat’s lively show has seen him attracting massive interest from fans of Egyptian giants Al Ahly, who sang his name on Friday night, asking him to join their club, while others have gone online to try and persuade their team to sign him.