The Sunday Mail
IN the week that the Warriors regroup to begin another Africa Cup of Nations football qualifying adventure, focus has naturally shifted to the squad that coach Joey Antipas has picked for that road to the 2021 finals.
Antipas initially named an enlarged 32-man side, which was last Thursday trimmed to 24.
The Warriors will clash against Botswana at the National Sports Stadium on Friday night before playing against Zambia in Lusaka on November 19.
While some buzz followed the bid to acquire passports for the emerging talent mostly based in the United Kingdom, the real debate has been around the form or lack of it, of Belgian-based striker Knowledge Musona and his recall to the squad.
Musona was overlooked for the back-to-back World Cup preliminary round qualifiers against Somalia in September and this came after the talismanic forward had endured a nightmarish 2019 Africa Cup of Nations campaign in Egypt.
But the “Smiling Assassin” has somehow forced his way back into the reckoning to provide leadership in the Warriors attack.
In fact, if current form was the only basis on which players are selected for national duty, Musona would be nowhere near the Warriors’ dressing room.
The Anderlecht striker, who has 14 Belgian First Division appearances in the last 16 months, played his last competitive league game 245 days ago.
Musona has resumed training with Anderlecht’s first team, after last featuring in the Belgian top-flight on March 10, 2019 when he was still on loan at Lokeren.
The 29-year-old forward then returned to action when he led Zimbabwe in Egypt, where they finished with just a point in their Group A matches against Egypt, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ordinarily, Musona’s name, being the captain, would be the first on a coach’s Warriors list, but it is the events surrounding his career that have cast a shadow on such a privilege.
Therefore his inclusion has torched debate, with some questioning the timing of his recall.
Some pundits are of the opinion that Antipas should have waited for Musona to regain match fitness before recalling him.
But those fighting in Musona’s corner strongly argue that even when not match-fit, the former Kaizer Chiefs’ man is good enough for the Warriors.
The coach who is credited for moulding Musona at the famed Harare football bakery, Aces Youth Soccer Academy director and coach, Marc Duvillard, thinks that his protégé is not psychologically fit for national duty.
“Maybe he has been called because he is the captain, maybe he will be on the bench and come in and play 20 minutes or so.
“To put him in the starting eleven might not help. Psychologically, he is not in a good condition. His club coach says he doesn’t want him. One moment he goes on loan, he comes back and says he will fight for the jersey but still he doesn’t play.
“He has a lot of confusion,” said Duvillard.
However, Antipas argues that the skipper always puts in 100 percent effort when on national duty.
“Just his presence is enough. Musona is needed for the Warriors, I don’t doubt his abilities,” Antipas said.
Antipas received the backing of former national team coach, Charles Mhlauri, who at one time overlooked an off-colour Benjani Mwaruwari when the then France-based striker had fitness doubts.
Mhlauri, who guided Zimbabwe at the 2006 Afcon finals, believes Musona’s case is a bit complicated.
“Match fitness is necessary but it is not the only factor considered for a national team call-up.
“Musona is playing at a relatively decent league. I am confident that when he comes, coaches will pass or fail him, guided by their medical team and his fitness.
“Let us not forget that being called up does not mean you will play. Remember I once brought Benjani (Mwaruwari) from France but I did not play him in the first game, but used him in the second game the following week.
“Peter (Ndlovu) was at times flown overnight from England and would play on arrival.
“There is no one-size-fits-all here. What is needed is to avail all the players to the coaches, then let them decide which tools to use.
“World over, we have seen players called for national duty straight out of injury, but the national team coach will make his assessment and decide on which ‘dogs’ have the speed and can bite,” Mhlauri said.
One of the most topical football issues in Nigeria at the moment is the omission of veteran Brighton & Hove defender Leon Balogun from the Super Eagles squad to face Benin and Lesotho.
After years as a guaranteed starter for the Super Eagles, the 31-year-old Balogun, who played every minute for Nigeria at the 2018 Fifa World Cup and featured prominently at the Afcon finals, has been dropped from the national team due to his inability to get game time at English side Brighton & Hove.
England coach Gareth Southgate also drew widespread media attention when he dropped Wayne Rooney in March 2017, because the former Manchester United star was not getting enough minutes under then gaffer Jose Mourinho.
Southgate was quoted saying he wouldn’t pick Rooney again until he had proven himself.
Some local analysts are of the view that Musona’s statistics in recent months do not warrant a national call up.
“We are not saying Musona has suddenly become a bad striker. He is just not fit and he is not in form,” said an analyst who requested anonymity.
“If one lacks game time, then he is not mentally switched on as the other guys who are regularly playing competitive football like Tino (Kadewere) or Macauley Bonne, if he gets the passport.
“Look at the way Musona applied himself at the Afcon finals. That loss of concentration against Egypt cost us, that miss against Uganda was a sign that he is not himself.”
Musona has scored six goals in the last five Afcon qualifiers at the National Sports, including that historic hat trick against Liberia on June 11, 2017.
He now has a total of 14 goals in the Afcon qualifiers since scoring his debut in a 1-1 draw in Liberia on September 5, 2010.
“Musona’s statistics in the Warriors colours do not lie,” said former Bulawayo Chiefs coach Garthly Chipuka.
“Let’s not be emotional, Musona is one of the best we have. He has this telepathic relationship with Khama (Billiat), which has brought results for Zimbabwe.
“So if you want Khama to be effective, you need Musona around him. At times we need to find out the real reason why Musona is not playing at his club, maybe the coaches there just don’t like him or have some personal problems with him,” he said.
Musona’s hope of saving his waning Anderlecht career, after the appointment of Frank Vercauteren as head coach in October, is slowly fading away.
Vincent Kompany stepped down from his match day managerial duties to focus on the club’s defence and it looks like Vercauteren might want Musona out on loan again.
But Rodwell Dhlakama, who coached Musona at national Under 17 level, sees the debate on Musona as an insult to the talisman’s “special talent.”
“Game time or no game time, Musona remains one of the most important members in the squad.
“We are talking of special talent here, not an ordinary player,” said the Ngezi Platinum Stars gaffer.
“We are also talking about different competitions with differing objectives. Musona has served the national team with distinction and deserves a chance to defend the country’s flag.”
BN Academy director, Beki Nyoni, believes Musona’s presence will galvanize the Warriors camp.
“Musona is undoubtedly the Warriors’ leader. The good thing is that he is now training at his club.
“This might be an opportunity for the new coach (Antipas) to assess him,” said Nyoni.
Former CAPS United and Zimbabwe winger Alois Bunjira is convinced that Musona is fit for national duty.
“Musona is fit because he trains with the first team every day.
“Professional teams keep all their players match fit. The ones that don’t play matches for the first team will get matches in the reserve side and Under 23, just like how Leicester City handle Admiral Muskwe.
“We overthink things. Some England regulars have been bench warmers at their clubs over the years,” Bunjira said.
Away from the Musona debate, Mhlauri also threw in his opinion on the British Brigade that had been called up.
Antipas initially included Tivonge Rushesha (Swansea Under 21), Jordan Zemura (Bournemouth), Adam Chicksen (Bolton Wanderers), Cliff Moyo (Kidderminster Harriers) and red-hot Charlton Athletic striker Bonne in the provisional squad.
However, the Warriors gaffer is now only interested in 24-year-old Bonne, who has scored five goals in eight appearances for Championship side Charlton; and the 26-year-old defender Moyo who plays in the National League North and South – England’s sixth tier division.
Bonne and Moyo are in the trimmed Warriors squad.
“I see there is a lot of excitement about the new guys but I feel there is no need to get too excited. Some of them are very promising but some are at mediocre clubs and will need thorough evaluation,” Mhlauri said.
But Antipas has a lot of belief in the qualities of the Diaspora players.
“These players have been through top academies, learning the game from a very young age before graduating to the clubs they are playing for.
“They are tactically aware of the needs to play basic football,” said Antipas.
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