Robson Sharuko, Harare Bureau
Congo 1 – 1 Zimbabwe
KHAMA BILLIAT scored his third goal, in 41 minutes, for the Warriors but his superb strike was not enough to give his team victory as hosts Congo fought back strongly in the second half to force a draw in this 2019 Afcon qualifier in steamy testing conditions at the Stade Alphonse Massamba-Debat in Brazzaville yesterday.
The 28-year-old Kaizer Chiefs forward, who took a huge gamble to play in this match after a week in which he battled a hamstring strain that even threatened to elbow him out of the contest, thrust the Warriors into the lead in the first half after hammering his shot into the roof of the net from close range.
But Thievy Bifouma, the new golden boy of football for the hosts, who was born in Paris and even featured for the French national youth teams before choosing to play for his fatherland at senior international level, equalised for his team five minutes after the interval.
The result, coupled with Liberia – who crashed to a 0-3 defeat at the hands of the Warriors in their first qualifier in Harare in June last year – finding a way to hold the Democratic Republic of Congo in Monrovia, meant that the Warriors remained top of the group with four points from two matches.
The DRC also have four points from two games but trail the Warriors because of an inferior goal difference while Congo-Brazzaville and Liberia have a point from the same number of matches.
The highly-rated DRC, who started off their campaign with a 3-1 win over their Congolese neighbours in Kinshasa in June last year, were starring defeat in Monrovia yesterday when William Jebor put the hosts into the lead in the 62nd minute.
But substitute Meshack Elia scored with seven minutes remaining in regulation time to force a draw.
The Warriors, whose camp was ravaged by injuries sustained by some key players in defence, midfield and attack, have largely struggled on the road but they took the game to their lethargic hosts in the first half to silence a partisan crowd.
They kept their shape intact, on an artificial surface, and the pace of their attack kept worrying the hosts who found themselves gradually being pegged back as the match progressed.
And, in the 22nd minute, the Warriors struck to take the lead.
Fine work down the right channel, in which the visitors pushed the ball through some tight avenues, opened the hosts and left them duly exposed when the ball was finally threaded into the path of Knowledge Musona who was hanging on the shoulders of the defence.
The skipper took a touch as he bought a bit of time for his teammates to attack the goal, his drawback across the face of goal was exquisite, splitting the Congolese rearguard and desperately crying out for a touch.
It came from Billiat, whose connection with his right foot lifted the ball into the roof of the nets, in a fitting provision of the end product to a fine move by the visitors.
It was more than the Warriors deserved, at that stage of the contest in which they kept asking questions with the pace of their attack giving the hosts, who appeared ordinary and overawed, struggled to impose themselves.
This was Billiat’s third goal in his last 41 minutes in the colours of his country, after scoring twice in extra-time, in helping script that remarkable success story over Zambia in the Cosafa Cup final in Polokwane.
For a player who spent the whole week battling with the demons of doubt if he could make it in this game, because of a hamstring strain, his goal was worth its weight in gold and justified all the sacrifice made, personal and professional, to ensure he featured in this game.
It should have been two for the visitors as Musona ran to a ball switched to the left and some step-overs left his marker in wonderland as the Zimbabwe skipper drifted, not for the first time, towards the edge of the box.
His pass found Danny Phiri, running to provide the reinforcement to the attack, and the midfielder’s shot was struck with venom but lacked the precision needed, always rising, always missing, as it flew over the bar.
Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, Deco could have laid the ball into the path of Khama, who was unmarked at the edge of the box, and whose confidence had been boosted by the goal he had scored moments earlier.
However, the chance that Musona soon got should have been buried, without a doubt, by a player of his pedigree and that could have been game, set and match.
Another quick Zimbabwean break freed Evans Rusike down the right channel as the Congolese off-side trap was breached, the SuperSport United forward charged into the open spaces and spotted his skipper coming in from the blind side.
His pass was perfect and Musona, all alone inside the box, could even have afforded the luxury of a touch and then placement of his shot but, for a player usually the epitome of coolness in such occasions, his adrenalin let him down as he went for a first time effort.
The shot was hard but straight at the ‘keeper and the rebound came quickly at him he could only poke it out of play with his left foot.
That should have been a second goal for the Warriors, without a doubt, and that they failed to get it, gave the hosts hope that they could strike back, which they did shortly after the break, in a half in which they were the better side.
Musona, though, had another chance to win it for the Warriors but his firm shot was expertly dealt with by the ‘keeper in the dying stages of the match.
G Chigova, E Chipeta, D Lunga, A Mudimu, T Hadebe, M Munetsi, D Phiri, K Billiat (Chawapihwa), K Mahachi (T Kutinyu), K Musona, E Rusike