Bil­liat, Ndoro, Kat­sande, Knowl­edge & Co have the power to spring a sur­prise in tight group

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - NJABULO NGIDI

THE AFRICA Cup of Na­tions (Af­con) is a lot like go­ing home in De­cem­ber. The lead-up to it is chaotic, with last­minute prepa­ra­tions and wind­ing traf­fic. But when you get there, it’s a party with all the colour­ful char­ac­ters there. Group B is a lot like that.

Zim­babwe’s lead-up to the tour­na­ment was chaotic. Their play­ers went on strike, boy­cotting their of­fi­cial send-off at­tended by sev­eral mem­bers of par­lia­ment. The play­ers de­manded close to R69 000 bonuses for each match. A last­minute agree­ment was reached, with the ad­min­is­tra­tors and play­ers led by cap­tain Wil­lard Kat­sande, sign­ing a hand­writ­ten con­tract.

With that sorted, the War­riors now have to try to reach the knock­out stage for the first time in their his­tory af­ter more than a decade-long ab­sence from the event.

Zim­babwe boast a strong at­tack led by Khama Bil­liat, Knowl­edge Mu­sona and Tendai Ndoro. If the War­riors are to make an im­pact in Gabon, that trio will need to bring their A-game with Kat­sande adding mid­field mus­cle in a tough group with Al­ge­ria, Tu­nisia and Sene­gal.

Al­ge­ria’s clash with Tu­nisia will be a bruis­ing en­counter be­cause of the ri­valry be­tween th­ese two Arab na­tions. It’s among the matches that will turn the group stages into a party with the en­ter­tain­ment it will of­fer.

The Desert Foxes coach, Ge­orges Leekens, won’t be lack­ing in mo­ti­va­tion com­ing up against his former em­ploy­ers. The Bel­gian left Tu­nisia over un­paid bonuses for the 2015 Af­con. He has a squad good enough to pun­ish The Carthage Ea­gles and chal­lenge for hon­ours. Riyad Mahrez, Is­lam Sli­mani and Yassin Brahimi lead the at­tack of an Al­ge­rian side that feel it’s about time they are African cham­pi­ons again, 27 years af­ter they did so for the first time.

But it’s the Lions of Teranga who roar qual­ity. They are man­aged by Aliou Cisse who was there in Sene­gal’s finest hour, when they stunned then world cham­pi­ons France in the 2002 World Cup be­fore go­ing all the way to the quar­ter-fi­nals. That was a cou­ple of months af­ter Sene­gal lost in the fi­nal of the Af­con.

Cisse’s men can do bet­ter than that if they don’t self-im­plode. With all their qual­ity, Sene­gal are their own worst en­emy. When they show up, they do so in style and when they don’t, they also do it to equal mea­sure like the case when they bombed out of the group stage in the last Af­con. Al­ge­ria were in their group then, giv­ing Sene­gal a chance to avenge that em­bar­rass­ment.

Two of the four African coaches, Cisse and Cal­listo Pa­suwa, are in this group just like two of the four Arab na­tions in the tour­na­ment are here. They’re likely to can­cel each other out, es­pe­cially on match­day two when Al­ge­ria face Tu­nisia and Zim­babwe take on Sene­gal.

Al­ge­ria and Sene­gal are favourites to top the group be­cause of the qual­ity and the ex­pe­ri­ence of their teams. But Zim­babwe and Tu­nisia can cause a sur­prise.

The Zim­bab­weans have to prove to their coun­try­men that they are worth the money they de­manded while Tu­nisia are led by an old hand. This should make it a tight group that will be sep­a­rated by the small­est of mar­gins.


STAR MAN: Sa­dio Mane has been in scin­til­lat­ing form for Liver­pool and Sene­gal will hope he brings his An­filed per­for­mances to gabon as they seek to win their maiden African Na­tions Cup ti­tle.

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