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Assessing Zebras’ tricky AFCON 2021 Qualifiers opponents

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Zebras facing Algeria for the first time in competitive action
Zebras with inferior head to head records against Zimbabwe and Zambia

BONGANI MALUNGA

The Botswana men’s senior national football team has been handed a tricky Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) Qualification route after being drawn in Group H alongside African champions Algeria, former African champions Zambia and cross border rivals Zimbabwe.

On paper, Group H looks set to be an unpredictable and entertaining qualification group given the presence of perennial Southern African rivals and the defending AFCON winners, with all teams vying for the top two spots. Gazette Sport has taken a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of Zebras’ qualifiers opponents.

Algeria
The reigning African champions are the talk of the continent at the moment after their recent triumph, their resilience and consistency was unmatched in the recently ended AFCON competition. They have been an African force for many years, producing some of the continent’s finest players and even participating at the World Cup.
Strengths: The Algerians have an array of talent in their squad, their core includes players who regularly play in the UEFA Champions League such as Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City), Yacine Brahimi (FC Porto), Sofiane Feghouli (Galatasaray) and Adam Ounas (Napoli).

They have strength in depth as the likes of Islam Slimani can also wreak havoc whether he is used as a starter or as an impact player changing roles with star striker Baghdad Bounedjah, other reliable players such as Nabil Bentaleb, Adlene Guedioura and Leicester City midfielder Rachid Ghezzal have made decent names for themselves in Europe.

Algeria is a physically imposing team which has a solid defence marshalled by Amir Bensebaini and Djamel Benlamri as they showed in this past AFCON tournament, they conceded only two goals in the competition and kept a competition high five clean sheets. They usually play a lot closer to their opponents, denying them space and this helps them impose themselves on opposing strikers and limiting their ability to link up with their midfielders.

On their day they can offer great attacking display through Mahrez and Brahimi who can interchange the wide positions depending on the opposition. Their wing-play has a variety as they can also opt for the graft and workhorse mentality of Guediorra who helps in terms of tracking back if the team is starved of possession in a game. They are a well balanced side with an ever improving spine.

Weaknesses: Botswana can exploit Algeria by adopting a pragmatic approach, sitting back and hitting them on the counter. This tactic once worked for Zebras against top North African opposition on the road to AFCON 2012. Deploying time wasting tactics and surrounding the referee at every turn is something which Algeria and many Northern have mastered, this frustrates the opposition and ensures that there are numerous stoppages to prevent momentum and the rhythm of the game if they are under attack. If the Zebras players can adapt to this they might be able to get to tussle with Algeria. Although Algeria has a strong defence, they tend to defend in a pattern, this could be exploited by making clever runs into the box or hitting long range efforts when an opportunity arises. A rigid or lone striker would struggle against them but a mobile and pacey striker would cause them problems, their defenders have great physique but they lack pace.

Head to head: N/A. Teams facing each other for the first time ever.

Zambia
The 2012 AFCON winners have been on a downward spiral since winning the competition seven years ago. They finished the 2013 and 2015 editions in the group stages without registering a win, they also failed to qualify for the 2019 edition after finishing in the bottom spot in their qualifying group.

However, on their day Zambia can be a dangerous team as they still boast talented players such as dynamic Orlando Pirates midfielder Augustine Mulenga whose trickery and ability to get into good scoring positions will always be a threat. Mulenga has the ability to play in multiple attacking positions and create chances for his teammates, he is a well built player with great close control, vision and all round technical ability.

Another Zambian star who could cause problems is fleet footed forward Justin Shonga whose skill, pace and eye for a goal has made him a national team asset. Last season he scored 12 goals in all competitions for Pirates, he also proved his creative mettle as he dished out eight assists for his teammates. His national team record is even more impressive, he has netted 11 goals in 18 games for Zambia, making him a man to watch for the Zebras.

Botswana has faced Zambia 17 times in international friendlies and COSAFA Cup games, the last time the Zebras defeated the Zambians was in 2004. The sides recently met in the COSAFA Cup final as Zambia ran out 1-0 winners on the day.

Head to head record: Zambia (10 wins), Botswana (2 wins), 5 draws

Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe could be classified as a team on the up as they have recently participated in two consecutive AFCON tournaments (2017, 2019). The team played exciting football in the qualifiers and they were also defensively sound as they conceded only four goals in qualifying. In total Zimbabwe are unbeaten in 12 home games in the last two years in terms of AFCON Qualifying games, they have conceded only two goals at home in that spell.

They rely on the goal scoring exploits of Knowledge Musona and Khama Billiat, if both players are at their best Zimbabwe is nearly unstoppable. Musona has scored eight goals in the 2017 and 2019 qualification group games while Billiat has chipped in with six (in the 2017 and 2019 Qualifiers). The gulf in the scoring gap between their top two players and the rest of the squad suggests that they may be too reliant on their star duo. If both players can be kept in check then Zebras could have a chance to obtain positive results.

Head to head record: Zimbabwe (10 wins), Botswana (5 wins) and 2 draws

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