There was a big-time mentality about the Warriors forward against Egypt, and it may have cost his team. Khama Billiat’s performance against Egypt in Zimbabwe’s Africa Cup of Nations opener divided observers.
For some, he was the shining light in the Warriors’ 1-0 defeat, a cut above the rest, and offered hope—despite their loss—that the southern Africans will escape from this tight and testing Group A.
There was much to celebrate about Billiat’s performance, and on the day, he wasn’t outshone by the darling of the home supporters, Mohamed Salah, who often had trouble finding a way past Warriors left-back Divine Lunga.
While Salah made 62 touches during the match, Billiat only managed slightly fewer on 60, and while the former was drawn deeper to get involved, the latter consistently took up threatening positions and proved a consistent menace for the Pharaohs’ backline.
At times in the second half—and this isn’t an exaggeration—it wasn’t always evident which of the duo was the reigning Premier League top scorer and a Champions League winner, and who was playing in the PSL.
Billiat’s first touch was simply sublime, as he was able to receive direct, long passes—often from the opposite flank—and in one fluid movement, control the ball and spin away from his marker into space.
Zimbabwe allowed him to enjoy the freedom of the left flank to start with, and he relished the time he enjoyed on the ball, although he was momentarily drawn into a central role, where the Egyptian centre-backs had appeared more comfortable dealing with the bustle and brute of Nyasha Mushekwi.
His movement, footwork and technique were all exceptional, and there was one delicious moment when he evaded two Egyptian defenders, and the hapless pair collided into each other—like two drunks at closing time—as he whizzed away down the field.
The fans in attendance could have been forgiven for questioning why Billiat was still playing in the South African top flight—albeit with a giant in the form of Kaizer Chiefs—and not in a more rarefied environment.
At 28, it’s not too late for the diminutive attacker to try his hand in Europe—there are clubs who would take him—but it was telling that when it was time for him to move on from Mamelodi Sundowns, Chiefs was his ultimate destination.
His height counts again, as, now, does his age, but, as he demonstrated against Egypt, so too does his decision-making.
Inside the opening 10 minutes of the opener—despite the hostile environment and the capacity crowd that were—to the man—willing Salah to tear the Warriors apart—the visitors demonstrated their own attacking qualities.
Unfazed by the environment, they tore forward in possession, looking to pick holes in the hosts’ backline.
Early on, Billiat himself was guilty as an opportunity went missing; the Chiefs man waited too long to play in Ovidy Karuru, and by the time the midfielder got his cross off, the opening had passed.
Goalkeeper Edmore Sibanda
At times, despite their promise, Zim lacked coherency during the first half, with Billiat imploring his defenders to get the ball out to him quicker, to look up immediately and pick the openings, while, by contrast, right-back Tendayi Darikwa called for caution, steadiness, and for the visitors to slow things down and take the sting out of the game.
Both arguments had their merits, but considering how rampant Egypt were during the opening stages, with Edmore Sibanda and his defence producing a series of last-gasp scrambles to get the ball clear, a little game-management wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
Yet Billiat didn’t seem to realise this.
Indeed, there were several times during the match when he played with the swagger and confidence of an Amakhosi frontman—no bad thing—but didn’t marry that with the humility, discipline, desire and decision-making that must come with being an underdog.
There’s a fine line to tread between underdog status and a defeatist mentality, but Billiat appeared to still be in Chiefs mode, enjoying the luxuries of playing for a side who typically enjoy the lion’s share of possession, will create a bucketload of chances, and won’t find themselves under as much pressure as Zim did.
On 34 minutes, with Ahmed Hegazy—Egypt’s most imposing defender—off the pitch receiving treatment, the Warriors received a free kick in a dangerous position on the left.
It’s the kind of opportunity that should be solid gold for a team who’s put even a tiny amount of effort into offensive set pieces, and represented a chance for Zim to take the lead.
Billiat, stepping up with the confidence of a man who fancied himself to get half a dozen more big chances, stepped up and foolishly blazed the free kick over the bar.
There was no well placed effort to try and test Mohamed El Shenawy and potentially get a rebound for his teammates, and no teasing cross to force an Egypt backline without their star man into an error.
Let it roll under his feet and out of play
Immediately after the restart following Egypt’s opener, Billiat received a ball from the centre of the park and—in a momentary lapse—let it roll under his feet and out of play.
Again, however, his composure let him down, and casual crossing and speculative efforts came as a relief to an Egyptian backline who surely would have been expecting more.
Perhaps they knew too that Billiat had managed just five goals and six assists in 26 Absa Premiership matches this season!
Egypt had failed to kill the game off, but Zim, lacking coordination, lacking collective composure, didn’t take advantage.
There’s no doubt that Zimbabwe—and Billiat—have the quality to escape from this group and reach the knockouts for the first time in their history.
However, if the forward is going to realise the promise that his performance demonstrated, he must embrace humility, realise that he’s playing for an underdog rather than a top dog, and cut out the overplaying.
If Billiat is focused, if he is clinical, if he adds an end product to his delightful build-up play, then this talented Zimbabwe team could yet take this tournament by storm.
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