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CAN 2017 Sport Football Zimbabwe Algeria Gabon

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Zimbabwe's Warriors prepare for battle against Algeria

Riyad Mahrez who won the African footballer of the year award just before the 2017 Cup of Nations will be one of the main threats to Zimbabwe during their clash in Franceville. Reuters

Zimbabwe are considered the makeweights of a pool containing Algeria, Senegal and Tunisia. On paper Algeria’s opening Group B match against Zimbabwe in Franceville should be three points.

In January’s Fifa rankings, the north Africans were 39th in the world while Zimbabwe - nicknamed the Warriors - were 64 places beneath them.

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But often the Africa Cup of Nations renders up a level playing field. And Callisto Pasuwa’s men appear to relish their underdog status.

“Obviously we will take that tag because, if you look at the Fifa rankings, that says it all,” said skipper Willard Katsandé on the eve of the clash against Algeria. “But at the same time we are not intimidated to go and battle the big teams in Africa.”

Part of that buoyancy emerges from a 1-1 draw in a friendly against Cameroon in Yaounde on 10 January.

“I think the way we performed in that game sent a huge message to anyone who was doubting our commitment towards this tournament,” Katsandé said.

Standoff with Zifa

Questions were raised about the squad’s attitude during a standoff with the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) over the payment of appearance fees and bonuses. The players refused to attend an official banquet in their honour. Zifa accused them of being greedy, especially with the country in a parlous economic state.

The squad then refused to board a plane for Gabon because they hadn’t received their cash. The squabble has been settled but it was an unedifying prelude to their first appearance at the tournament since 2004.

African player of the year

Yet, despite their disparity, for the superstitiously minded the omens are propitious for Zimbabwe. Back then in Tunisia, they beat Algeria 2-1.

Such a scoreline on Sunday afternoon in Franceville would be a huge shock. Algeria boast the African player of the year Riyad Mahrez as well as his Leicester City teammate Islam Slimani – both sorely missed on Saturday night when City lost 3-0 to Premier League leaders Chelsea.

There are other Algerian players at leading European clubs and, though Zimbabwe cannot compete with that level of experience, striker Knowledge Musona has been in good form for KV Ostende in Belgium’s top flight and Khama Billiat won the African Champions League with Mamelodi Sundowns.

Pasuwa also has a winning mentality.

The 46-year-old led the Dynamos to four consecutive league titles in Zimbabwe between 2011 and 2014. Zimbabwe qualified for the 2017 Cup of Nations top of Group L following three wins, two draws and a defeat.

The Warriros were eliminated after the group stages during their two previous visits to the Cup of Nations in 2004 and 2006. Pasuwa believes his men have a fighting chance if they can reproduce the form showed during the friendly against Cameroon.

"Then we’ll surprise everyone,” he warned.