Zimbabwe 2 – 4 Tunisia : Ruthless Carthage Eagles Send Warriors Home After Brilliant First Half Display 

​Last night’s match between Zimbabwe and Tunisia brought to mind Shakespeare’s Macbeth when Macbeth remarks to Seyton that life’s “but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more.” 

The same might be said of the Warriors of Zimbabwe,  after they were dumped out of this year’s edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. They played like shadows of themselves,  fretted and strutted for a while,  then were eliminated in ignominious fashion. 

When the inquest into the Warriors’ dismal performance at this year’s AFCON comes,  as it will inevitably do, excuses will be proffered, as always. It will be pointed out that the group was a difficult one, a so called group of death, that our football administration makes it impossible for a coach to win and so on. 

Yet, however mitigatory these circumstances may be, the blame for last night’s defeat ought to be laid squarely on Callisto Pasuwa’s feet. 

Zimbabwe entered this match knowing that only a win would do. Anything else would mean an early return home. Surprisingly, given the circumstances, Pasuwa opted for a defensive formation that featured two defensive midfielders and a central midfielder flanked by wingers and Nyasha Mushekwi as the sole striker.

In midfield Danny Phiri made a return, partnering the Zimbabwean Captaim Willard Katsande with Marvelous Nakamba in a slightly more advanced midfield role. Kuda Mahachi dropped to the bench, as his spot on the wing was taken by Knowledge Musona. Billiat occupied the other wing and Nyasha Mushekwi, despites his poor showing in the last two matches, played as the outright striker. The backline remained unchanged. 

One would have thought that after the first two matches the coach would choose a more offensive formation and picked Tendai Ndoro in place of Mushekwi. Additionally, playing Danny Phiri together with Katsande and Nakamba meant the midfield triumvirate was going to be very defensive right from the start. The problems were compounded by the fact that this three played so close to one another that it was impossible to distribute the ball effectively in the middle of the pitch.

Zimbabwe were pressurized by a very aggressive Tunisia from the first minute, with the North Africans relying on width to outpace the narrow Zimbabweam midfield. Danny Phiri lunged into a reckless challenge that earned him a yellow card. This resulted in a free kick that was powerfully shot at goal, leading to a corner as Tatenda Mukuruva arrived late to parry the ball out. The resulting corner was cut inwards, and met by Sliti who shot at goal and benefited from a defelection that wrong-footed Mukuruva and went in.

That was in the first ten minutes.  It meant Callisto Pasuwa’s team had conceded at least a goal in the first fifteen minutes of every match they had played. Such porousness is unacceptable at a competition of this level, and it highlighted that Pasuwa had not learnt anything from the first two matches, in which he had conceded early goals to both Senegal and Algeria.

Ten or so minutes later Tunisia got their second when the impressive Youssef Msikani poked a goal in after terrible defending from the Warriors and before long it was three. Knowledge Musona showed class and composure to pull one back for the Warriors just before half time but a minute later Zimbabwe were caught in a counter attack. Costa Nhamoinesu dragged down and a penalty was awarded. Wahbi Khazri coolly scored from the spot to make it four.

That’s how it stood at the interval: Tunisia 4, the Warriors 1. At that point it was clear as daylight that the game was effectively over as a contest. The Warriors had lost control of the game just after kick off and had been punished for it, letting in plenty of goals and gifting Tunisia a place in the knockout stages.

At halftime Callisto Pasuwa brought in Tendai Ndoro to replace Danny Phiri but the move was a late one. Zimbabwe were more composed and played better, though we were left wondering why Mushekwi was still on the pitch.

The second half was a much better one for the Warriors: Musona showed why his absence in the first two matches mattered, while the brilliant Khama Billiat dazzled displayed great skill, showing why he is arguably the finest player playing on the continent while Tatenda Mukuruva continued to shine, denying Tunisia a fifth and even a sixth. The game improved so much that Zimbabwe scored a second, this time from Tendai Ndoro.

Despite late resurgence from the Warriors, the game had died in the first half when terrible defending and tactical ineptitude condemned Zimbabwe to an ignoble defeat in the first half-hour. The Zimabwean right back, Hardlife Zvirekwi was frequently caught wandering out of position, granting the Tunisian wingers acres of space from which they could torment the Warriors. The central defender Elisa Muroyiwa was as bad, he was terribly caught out on several occasions, with two of those leading to a goal.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the team Zimbabwe sent out to face Tunisia were boys picked from the Sunday amateur “boozers” leagues, playing for a few beers and bragging rights. The players themselves did nothing to dispel this notion. The coach himself was probably the worst of the lot, he looked out of his depth from the second game onwards and this was surely his worst game in charge of the Warriors. It was a measure of his quality that with the Warriors trailing by four goal to one he had only made one substitution, and even though it was clear that the game was irredeemable, he could not bring himself to bring on some new players who we had not seen such as Tino Kadewerere, for instance, in place of people like Nyasha Mushwekwi who commanded an undeserved first team jersey.

It is no accident, then, that Callisto Pasuwa, with his solitary point, is the worst manager to ever coach the Warriors at the Africa Cup of Nations. He showed a shocking lack of tactical understanding, picked the wrong people and made the wrong substitutions.

The only bright sparks at this tournament were Tatenda Mukuruva, Khama Billiat, and briefly, Knowledge Musona.Together with Nakamba these can be a foundation upon which we can build future teams. 

However there can be no doubt that Pasuwa should not be in charge of those future teams.At the grandest stage of all he was left floundering. 

When the match finally ended, the relief on the Warriorss faces was palpable- their torment had also ended. And so had their appearance at the tournament. Pasuwa  and his poor players had strutted and fretted their hour upon the African field, to be heard no more.

Senegal 2 – 0 Zimbabwe : Pasuwa at Wit’s End as Imperious Lions of Teranga Maul Warriors 

​When the cameras swung to Callisto Pasuwa near the end of the match he had the look of a man thoroughly baffled,  as if wondering what he was doing in Gabon; like a party gatecrasher who, after failing to fit in, just resigns to enjoying the food and watching proceedings. He was, in Bible parlance,  a stranger in strange land. 

It was a fitting look for the Zimbabwean coach, the game was beyond his control- it had never been from kickoff – all he could do was marvel at the brilliance of the Senegalese. 

Pasuwa’s selection was itself questionable,  particularly the inclusion of the ineffectual Matthew Rusike and the exclusion of Tendai Ndoro,  who was relegated once more to the bench in favor of Nyasha Mushekwi. The return of Marvelous Nakamba meant Danny Phiri went to the bench but otherwise the team remained unchanged. 

Zimbabwe opted for a form of 4-2-3-1 formation with the duo of Nakamba and Katsande shielding the defense and ahead of them Billiart,  flanked by Mahachi and Rusike,  with Mushekwi as the striker. It is useful provided one of the two central midfielders links up with the attacking midfield,  and if the wide forwards help out in defensive duties. The Senegalese packed their midfield, which comprised of Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye,  flanked by Henri Saivet and Keita Diao. Sadio Mane and Mame Diouf were up front. 

Within the opening five minutes Zimbabwe were exposed at least twice,  as the Keita and Diouf missed golden chances . With Katsande and Nakamba playing to deep and Billiat too far ahead of them,  a deep hole was created in midfield,  into which Gueye and Kouyate drifted,  feeding Henri Saivet and Keita Diao who menaced Zimbabwe’s wing backs right from the beginning.

It was ominous of the things to come. Katsande lost the ball in midfield,  it found its way to Saivet who shot across goal. The ball appeared to be going out of play until Sadio Mane appeared to tap in an easy goal. Minutes later Saivet curled in a brilliant freekick from outside the box. 

The second goal effectively killed the game as a contest. That was sixteen minutes into the match. 

The Senegalese completely dominated the match for the remainder of the first half except for a brief period when the Zimbabweans threatened and Khama Billiat had a good chance to score. However the Mamelodi Sundowns talisman shot tamely at goal and his shot was saved by the Senegalese goalkeeper.

At half time Callisto Pasuwa made some surprising chances, bringing on Evans Rusike in for Matthew Rusike and Tendai Ndoro for Kuda Mahachi. Rusike had been poor,  losing possession to the Senegalese,  but both replacements were unexpected both tactically and qualitatively.

Pasuwa gave the impression of a man who had to act,  only because it was expected. As the man in charge he had to make changes. 

It meant Nyandoro was put on the wing where he proved ineffective,  while the other winger Evans Rusike,  disappeared from the match altogether. 

The second half was worse for Zimbabwe as Senegal created numerous chances that they would have undoubtedly buried had they not been two goals ahead. 

Only the intervention of Costa Nhamoinesu,  Zvirekwi and the Zimbabwean goalie kept the scoreline from becoming a rugby one. 

Mukuruva had to respond brilliantly several times in one-on-one situations, while Costa Nhamoinesu had to make several last-ditch clearances. 

Zimbabwe never really looked threatening,  except for a Mushekwi effort that went straight at Abdoulaye Diallo,  the Senegalese goalkeeper. The game had effectively died with the Saivet goal. 

Credit,  however,  must go to a brilliant Senegal that played some brilliant,  dazzling football. It won’t be surprising if they make it to the finals or even win the tournament. There has been no better side,  and Senegal  are deservedly the first side to qualify for the knockout stages of this tournament. 

However Zimbabwe will be hopeful of qualification especially on the back of some brilliant play by the goalkeeper and Costa Nhamoinesu. Vitesse’s Marvelous Nakamba,  was also quite authoritative in midfield on his birthday,  playing with surprising composure. A win against Tunisia will be enough provided Algeria do not win against Senegal. 

That,  of course,  looks unlikely given how we played and given the way our coach handled the game against Senegal. Pasuwa will need to be at his very best to have any hope of overcoming Tunisia. 

At some point the commentator had remarked that of all the coaches at the tournament,  only Pasuwa lacked European experience,  either as coach or player. Last night it was apparent. 

In the end it was the heroic efforts of Mukuruva and Costa Nhamoinesu,  especially  Mukuruva, that kept the  scoreline respectable. 

It could have been five or six on the night by the time the Senegalese withdrew the imperious Sadio Mane,  to thunderous applause.

Algeria 2 : 2 Zimbabwe –  Defiant Warriors Unlucky in Gabon

​Had anyone asked Callisto Pasuwa,  the Zimbabwean coach,  whether he would settle for a draw in the Warriors opening match against the Foxes of Algeria,  I think Pasuwa would have gladly accepted a draw as a great result.

Yet had Zimbabwe capitalized on their chances,  or had they  been a little more lucky, they could have left the Stade de Franceville with three points in a game in which they led for close to an hour. 

In the end Algeria salvaged a point,  courtesy of two goals in either half from Riyard Mahrez, the first to put them in front and the second to level up scores after Zimbabwe had gone ahead. 

It was a lively contest that brought to mind Sepp Herberger’s view of football that : “The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. This much is fact. Everything else is theory.” 

On paper Algeria were far more superior,  boasting a storied line up featuring the likes of Yacine Brahimi and Leicester City’s Slimani and Mahrez,  the latter the best footballer in Africa. 
Zimbabwe, on the other hand,  have not played at this level for a decade and have been dogged by administrative issues and financial problems coming into the tournament. The players are not happy with the football association and there were rumors that the kit was not even ready. It hardly looked a fair contest. 

But that is theory,  the game’s 90 minutes had to run out. 

The Warriors started well,  playing with good pace and skill,  and an admirable lack of respect for their vaunted opponents, pressuring the Algerians into several corners. However Zimbabwe were forced into an early change as star striker Knowledge Musona appeared to have pulled a muscle and was replaced by Mathew Rusike. 

Khama Billiat,  never awed by the occasion, could have put Zimbabwe ahead in the first ten minutes. Twice he was thwarted,  first by the Algerian goalkeeper and then rather unfortunately by the upright. 

Riyard Mahrez capitalized on a misplaced back pass from Zimbabwe,  producing a goal against the run of play twelve minutes into the match. It was not a chance the African footballer of the year would have missed. Up until then Zimbabwe’s Warriors had been in control of the game. 

Zimbabwe responded within a few minutes as a goal from Kuda Mahachi leveled the match. 

Near the half hour mark the Warriors were ahead, this time from a Mushekwi penalty that came from some brilliant play by Bhasera, who was impeded in the course of a great attacking move. 

Nothing of note happened until just before half time when Zimbabwe had to defend several set pieces. A 40th minute free kick at the edge of the box had the Warriors holding their breath but the hard low free kick from Mahrez hit the Zimbabwean wall. 

At the interval the Warriors,  quite unbelievably,  were in  front. Despite not being dominant in the middle of the pitch,  they had had numerous chances and six corners to Algeria’s one. It could very well have been 3-1 in favor of Zimbabwe,  inconceivable as it seemed. 

Twice Khama Billiat came very close soon after half time; first denied by some great goalkeeping  after brilliantly turning the Algerian defense and then volleying over from the resultant corner. 

Soon afterwards a Bentaleb freak shot narrowly missed the upright and near the hour mark an Algeria corner hit the post as Zimbabwe endured a spell of sustained Algerian pressure. Near 70 minutes Mukuruva had to produce a brilliant save to keep Zimbabwe in the lead. A near own goal was prevented by the post. By that time the Warriors goalkeeper was by far  the busier of the two. 

The Warriors coach,  Callisto Pasuwa,  seeking to change fortunes,  withdrew Nyasha Mushekwi and brought on Cuthbert Malajila. It was a doubtful change,  considering that he left the in-form Tendai Ndoro on the bench. 

Inside a few minutes of his introduction, Malajila missed the game’s golden chance,  when he found himself one on one with the Algerian goalkeeper, setting the stage for an Algerian equalizer moments later. It was a classical Mahrez goal, but one the Zimbabwean goalkeeper should have saved. 

The last  few minutes of the game were nervous for the Warriors but they held on. It was a game Zimbabwe could have won, a game Malajila threw away. 

At the end the Warriors held on to a point. And in the scuffles of the game,  where the midfield were reduced to spectators in an affair entirely dominated by forwards,  it is ironic that for Zimbabwe the outstanding performer was Willard Katsande. 

The Kaizer Chiefs anchorman harried and chased,  tackled and won the ball, breaking up Algerian attacks time and again and gave his heart to the game. One hopes he will be paired with a more mobile partner in the games to come. His midfield partner of the day,  Danny Phiri,  is an able ball winner,  as much a tough tackler as Katsande himself, but he was found wanting when Zimbabwe were in possession. 

In possession the Warriors lacked an authoritative figure with the mobility, vision and inventiveness in midfield required to control the match. Without such a central midfielder they had no option but to punt the ball upfield to their forwards rather than build up play from the middle. The Vitesse midfielder Marvelous Nakamba should be considered for future matches,  seeing how ineffective the Warriors were in the middle of the pitch. 

Callisto Pasuwa will also have to display greater coaching acumen than he did in this game,  particularly in the second half where the team was reduced to defending for long periods and several players drifted aimlessly around the pitch. His team selection is also questionable, and there will be questions of why he didn’t bring in Tendai Ndoro or another central midfielder or winger in place of, say,  a tiring Mahachi later on. He is one of the least experienced coaches at the tournament and on this grandest of stages it showed. 

Still,  it was a game that Zimbabwe will feel they ought to have won. It would have been an entirely different story had Cuthbert Malajila put away his chance and on another day Billiart could have scored two or three. 

Callisto Pasuwa will also be encouraged by his charges’ performance and their refusal to be cowed by the stage or their opponents. The hope is that they will take heart from this draw,  and build on it in the coming games against Tunisia and Senegal. 

A win against Tunisia now looks possible and,  judging from this spirited performance, the Warriors can get at least a draw against Senegal and realistically qualify from one the tournament’s toughest groups. 

It was a thrilling match,  and a reminder of the game’s most enduring lesson –  that the whole is not always a sum of its parts. Football is a team sport,  and beyond having a talented squad,  the team that plays well together is more likely to win. Especially in national teams where the teams have little time to gel and get used to one another. 

The Guardian’s Peter Doyle,  in his analysis of the tournament’s  teams had given Zimbabwe no chance,  saying their stay in the tournament would be short. It seems he will be proved wrong.

After all,  the game is 90 minutes,  the ball is round. That much is fact. The rest,  who can say?