THE build-up might have been turbulent but, for half-an-hour yesterday, the Warriors exploded into an awesome machine that destroyed the Black Panthers and pushed themselves closer to a third Nations Cup appearance in South Africa next year.
A five-star performance by diminutive young forward Khama Billiat and solid contributions by evergreen veteran Esrom Nyandoro and the imposing Oscar Machapa were at the heart of this sensational victory against an Angolan side that only came to life in the second half.
The 3-1 victory for the Warriors was not only sweet but certainly as convincing as they will ever come in a tough African football jungle where easy opponents have disappeared from the scene and all the games are now tough.
Rahman Gumbo will take a lot of satisfaction from this victory and after only two goals in his first Nations Cup/World Cup matches in charge in this comeback spell, he saw his side score three goals in one game yesterday.
Rahman will probably argue, with a lot of justification, that his side would have turned on such impressive shows if their other two home matches against Guinea and Burundi had been played on the good surface of Rufaro instead of the poor pitch of the National Sports Stadium.
Yesterday was his fine hour and he deserves all the credit coming to him for selecting a team that was positive from the word go and, after this show, the Warriors and their coach will look forward to the second leg in Angola with a lot of optimism.
Criticised for ordering a media blackout on his players in the build-up to this game, and his options limited by issues that were beyond his control that robbed him of Knowledge Musona and Tinashe Nengomasha, Rahman had the last laugh yesterday as his team produced its finest show since his return as coach.
There will be questions about the way the Warriors fizzled out of the game in the second half, the dangerous balls that we repeatedly failed to deal with in the area and the chances the visitors created and didn’t take but, after a great day like yesterday, all that can wait for another day.
The goal that we gifted the Angolans, with skipper Tapuwa Kapini at fault for needlessly coming off his line and being beaten at the post he was protecting, gave the visitors a lifeline they barely deserved and triggered their all-out assault.
lt could prove the difference when this contest ends but if the Warriors had been offered a 2-1 win, before this game, it’s very likely they would have taken it, which makes this 3-1 victory a bonus that should be celebrated and not analysed with the mind of a devil.
For a team that wins a very small percentage of games, which are usually few and far between, trying to see the shortcomings of this performance, instead of celebrating the beauty of this grand achievement, will be foolish and the Warriors, and their coach, deserve to be saluted for what they did yesterday.
Yesterday needed heroes and there were many of them in that Warriors team and their guides on the bench.
The naive analysts, and there were many of them on the radio talk shows yesterday, will question the decision to field Kapini when he was clearly not match fit and barely trained all week.
Those who are mature will give Kapini a hero’s medal for putting his career on the line to serve his country and coming home to play, even when not fully fit.
As skipper, Kapini is a very important member of the team and his presence in the dressing room and on the field has a huge positive effect that it transmits to his teammates and the crowd.
He might have been at fault for the goal that the Angolans scored but it wasn’t a horrible mistake and it can also be argued that, by then, the deal had been done.
The biggest hero, though, yesterday was Billiat who played at a level so high a stranger at Rufaro yesterday would have been forgiven for thinking that he, and not Manucho, plays in La Liga.
lt was one of those grand individual performances, where everything he touched turned to gold, and Khamaldinho provided the star quality that the Warriors needed.
Khama’s performances for the Warriors, since his return from suspension after having been dragged into the Asiagate match-fixing scam, had been subdued.
But yesterday we saw the real Khama, leading his team with a range of trickery that the Angolans just couldn’t handle, scoring a beauty and creating the other goals.
lt was his shot from a free-kick that was deflected home by an Angolan defender to give the Warriors the early lead they needed to settle their nerves in the strange atmosphere of playing before a poor crowd.
Then Khama produced a moment for the archives with a superb individual goal, running to a pass from the deep and then bursting into the penalty area.
He still had a lot of work to do, with a defender in his path and the angle to goal having narrowed significantly.
Khama took his man on, a step over creating the pocket of space he badly needed, and then from that difficult angle, trusting his instinct to try his luck at goal.
That’s what all the geniuses in this game do, trying to defy the odds, to do things that other players would normally not try.
The product was a beautiful goal, threaded between the legs of the goalkeeper, and Zimbabwe were cruising.
lt even got better when Gutu, who was effective in that first half, headed home the third.
The fans were in Dreamland and for good measure too because try to imagine the last time the Warriors led 3-0 inside the first half-hour and you might find yourself drifting back to ’80s when teams like Lesotho were poor whipping boys for just about everyone.
But if the Warriors were awesome in the first half, they lost something at the interval and were on the ropes for the better part of the second half.
But it was always going to be asking for too much for them to keep playing at the same high level and the Angolans, who had everything to lose, stepped up the gear.
Manucho had two great chances in that half but every tem needs a slice of its luck for success.
Nyandoro, the old-warhorse, was imperious in that second half with a performance that was solid and only Khama played better than him.
That the Warriors lost steam in the second half wasn’t surprising given their chaotic preparations but, to their credit, they hung on for a deserved big win.
There is still a lot to play for in this game and we should never fool ourselves that this is a done deal and we are through to South Africa.
But we have given ourselves a good chance and the return of Tinashe Nengomasha and Willard Katsande will give Rahman options in Luanda.
There is no guarantee that the Angolans will beat us and who can claim that we won’t score in that country?
Not after what we did in the first 30 minutes yesterday.
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