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Zimbabwe can remain optimistic despite Afcon disaster

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Failure and heartbreak have long been familiar themes in Zimbabwean football, and it was perhaps inevitable that the Warriors' 2019 Africa Cup of Nations campaign would end in despair.

The Southern Africans flew to Egypt amid a rising tide of optimism after some encouraging displays in the qualifiers only to return home a miserable lot, with a 4-0 defeat by Democratic Republic of Congo ensuring an inglorious end to the dream of a first ever appearance in the knockout stages.

Yet the future might not be as gloomy as the results from Egypt suggest. In fact, Zimbabwe produced enough evidence in their first two matches to suggest they are gradually coalescing into a cohesive unit with some genuine quality across all departments.

Indeed, the one inspiration Warriors fans can draw from the Afcon campaign is that their team took a significant step towards having an established frame with enough talent to ensure continuity over the coming years.

Zimbabwe have struggled to come up with an established team of consistent performers since the turn of the decade, with so many prospects failing to summon the quality needed for an enduring international career. This has left the Warriors looking more like a team in perpetual transition.

From the squad that was in Gabon two years ago for instance, only four of the regular starters, namely Knowledge Musona, Khama Billiat, Marvelous Nakamba and Nyasha Mushekwi, made it onto the pitch for Zimbabwe's opening group match against Egypt. Kuda Mahachi, who started all three group matches in Gabon, had to be content with a peripheral role this time around.

But the evidence from the both the qualifiers and the first two matches in Cairo -- the 1-0 defeat by Egypt and the 1-1 draw with Uganda -- suggest things are about to take a turn for the better.

"We have a team which consists of some good young talent," Zimbabwe legend John Phiri told ESPN.

"We did very well in the first game against Egypt for instance, despite the loss. After watching that match, and the Uganda game as well, I actually thought we would have a great tournament."

The back-four, to begin with, is taking on a more predictable shape after being wholly reconstructed since Gabon 2017, when the quartet of Hardlife Zvirekwi, Onismo Bhasera, Elisha Muroiwa and Costa Nhamoinesu did duty.

The class of 2019 looks much younger, with new fullbacks Divine Lunga and Tendayi Darikwa bringing some much needed dynamism to the channels. Lunga's ability to run at defences and deliver useful balls should prove a valuable assert in future battles, while Darikwa also adds some quality down the right when the team is on the offensive.

The emergence of the two is one of the key reasons why Zimbabwe's play is increasingly looking more coordinated and less disjointed.

Lunga, 24, along with 23-year-old centre-back Teenage Hadebe, are still at a stage when defenders are vulnerable to making errors, but they have started gaining international experience early enough, and they could yet swell the team's ranks of European-based talent.

The final third has again lacked quality and depth in recent times, with Zimbabwe having to rely heavily on the duo of Musona and Billiat for both invention and execution. Musona has scored 22 goals in 39 appearances while Billiat has weighed in with another 15 goals.

The centre strikers have struggled to complement the duo, however, with Nyasha Mushekwi managing just six goals in 21 appearances. Cuthbert Malajila, for his part, has scored nine goals in 31 caps.

The arrival of Talent Chawapiwa means more options for the wide midfield positions, where Mahachi is also still available to contribute. Among the emerging centre strikers, Tino Kadewere and diaspora-born Macauley Bonne look set to begin their reign when the FIFA World Cup qualifiers begin later this year.

In central midfield, one big question still centres around whether Marshall Munetsi can be the ideal partner for Marvelous Nakamba. The 23-year-old Munetsi, who has just been snapped up by French Ligue 1 outfit Reims, was mostly deployed in central defence during his time at South African giants Orlando Pirates. He did not quite find his range when handed a central midfield role in Egypt.

Further up the field, the No. 10 position might also be in need of renewal. Veteran Ovidy Karuru is now 30, and although he did a decent job in Zimbabwe's first two matches in Egypt, his days at the top look to be coming to an end.

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Former Zimbabwe Under-20 coach Jairos Tapera is impressed with the team that is shaping up, although he would want enough focus on talent development to ensure more depth and continuity.

"I have worked with most of these young players at junior level," Tapera told ESPN. "I have no doubt that the likes of Lunga, Hadebe, Munetsi and Kadewere, among others, will enjoy better days in the national team.

"What I am worried about is whether we can ensure that more young talent keeps coming up to add more depth to the team. We need to improve a lot on development."

Egypt 2019 may have proved disastrous for Zimbabwe, but hope still remains that the new crop of players have the capacity to ensure better days ahead -- starting with the coming back-to-back African Nations Championship fixtures, for domestic league-based players, against Mauritius .

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