Zimbabwe: Warriors in the Eye of the Desert Storm

12 November 2020

Senior Sports Editor

A STORM has been pounding Harare, drenching the capital -- which has been reeling under a blanket of intense heat -- with all the blessings of life, which the summer rains bring in abundance.

More thunderstorms are expected in the capital today but none of them are likely to compare, in terms of both intensity and ferocity, with the Desert Storm the Warriors are set to face on the shores of the Mediterranean tonight.

As Harare welcomes the rains of life, the country's flagship football team have to battle the sands of death, in the toughest possible assignment any African team can face, today, in the fortress of the Desert Foxes.

The African champions, unbeaten in 20 matches and counting, the powerful force of nature which swept away the opposition, including Sadio Mane and his Lions of Teranga, en-route to winning the 2019 AFCON title in Egypt.

The team which, seemingly, have perfected the art of not conceding goals, with eight of their last 10 AFCON matches, ending with the opposition failing to breach their rearguard.

There is even a documentary, on YouTube, which shows how Algeria's coach, Djamel Belmadi, produced a masterclass to help his team nullify the Super Eagles dangerous wide men, Ahmed Musa and Samuel Chikwueze in the 2019 AFCON semi-final.

"We had to make a plan against this team (Nigeria), we knew that the transition, the speed of Musa and I always have with his name, the right winger (Chikwueze), we knew that, sometimes, they play very direct, especially when they find space behind us," says Belmadi in that clip.

"We tried to close the space, we tried to put pressure on their midfielders."

That meant, according to the expert who produced the clip, the establishment of a defensive shell where the Desert Foxes lined up either as 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1.

Their wide players, like Riyad Mahrez, would always draw backwards to deny space for the Nigerian speedy, and tricky wingers, and help to cut off the supply line into their path.

It was the same formula they also used to nullify the threat posed by the Senegalese, in that AFCON final, as they protected their golden goal, and win their first title in 19 years.

This means that, for all their attacking riches, the Desert Foxes have the right balance, and a formula, which has helped them stand the test of some of the toughest examinations, on the continent.

When they attack, as they did against the Zambians, in the first match of these AFCON qualifiers, they can be devastating.

Poor Chipolopolo were buried, under an avalanche of goals, with the hosts racing to a comprehensive 5-0 victory.

However, as Botswana showed, when the Desert Foxes arrived in Gaborone last year, they can be contained.

A 1-0 win for the North Africans was as much a victory, for the Algerians, as it was a morale win for the brave Zebras.

But, there is a difference between taking on the Desert Foxes, in their fortress, and battling them away from their backyard.

The first group of Warriors to battle them in Algeria were soundly beaten 0-3, in a '90 World Cup qualifier, in Annaba on January 6, 1989.

However, since the turn of the millennium, results have shown the Warriors can compete against these Desert Foxes with the only win, between the two sides, in four games.

The late Adam Ndlovu and Joel Luphahla scored in a 2-1 victory at the 2004 AFCON finals.

The last three matches have ended in draws -- 1-1 in Harare in a 2006 World Cup/AFCON qualifier, 2-2 in Algeria, in the same qualifiers, and 2-2 in Franceville, Gabon, at the 2017 AFCON finals.

It's the first time the Warriors will play at the 5 July Stadium, the 64-000-seater stadium in Algiers, which carries the date the Algerians declared their Independence from France.

However, they won't be the first Zimbabwean side to play there.

Twenty five years ago, the same stadium provided the setting for the end of Blackpool's beautiful adventure, in the CAF Cup of Cup Winners, when the colourful Harare side fell to a 0-1 defeat at the hands of eventual winners, JS Kabylie.

Blackpool had won the first leg, of this semi-final showdown, 2-1 in Harare but, that day in Algiers, everything -- including the worst refereeing possible -- was thrown at them by their hosts.

And, eventually, they crumbled to lose on away goals rule.

These Warriors have the men who can trouble the Desert Foxes -- Tino Kadewere, is bubbling with confidence after his double-strike, in his last match in France Ligue 1.

Khama Billiat has always been sensational for his country and inspirational skipper, Knowledge Musona, has been speaking with confidence.

It's a game coach Zdravko Logarusic would probably have loved to have the security, which the partnership of Marshal Munetsi and Marvelous Nakamba, would have provided in that shield to protect the defence.

However, Munetsi can't play tonight, after his French club chose not to release him, arguing he was injured.

And, in an era where clubs can bar their players from going to play for their countries, there is very little we can do to get him.

Germany Bundesliga side, Werder Bremen, refused to release all their players called for international duty during this window.

Many questions remain to be answered.

Will Loga go pound-for-pound with these Desert Foxes or will he choose to be conservative and go for defence, defence and more defence?

Will he go for a counter-attacking strategy, to make full use of the pace of both Billiat and Kadewere but, doesn't that then give the Algerians the freedom, to come at them?

The Croat has never faced the quality of such opposition before.

But, there is something else, which could help his men.

The absence of Algerian fans, in the stadium, which takes away the intimidating atmosphere which the Zambians had to deal with when they were there.

It's something that has made a mockery of what we have, for years, known as home advantage and given the game some of its craziest results.

No one knows the music the Warriors listen to, given the beat is hidden from our ears, in their headphones.

But, if any one of them has been listening to Tupac Shakur, and this assignment feels like it's them against the world, then it's an appropriate choice.

No one, absolutely no one, in this world, except their fans, believe the Warriors can come out with something.

However, as R Kelly told the world, every hurricane hits to pass.

Maybe, at about 11pm tonight, the whole bunch of these free-spirited Warriors will be singing, "The Desert Storm is Over."

And, their country, will be having a virtual Jerusalema Dance with them.

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