By his own admission, Botswana men senior national football team coach Mogomotsi Mpote says the Zebras were lucky not to lose against Eswatini this past Saturday.
The two neighbours played to a goalless draw during the CHAN qualifiers played at the Obed Itani Chilume sports complex. This game was a repeat of the COSAFA cup plate semifinal which pitted the two neighbors against each other just eight days prior. That game ended with Botswana winning it 2 – 0.
Things were however different this time around. Against a spirited Eswatini side, the Zebras seemed a shadow of the cohesive unit they were a week ago against the same opponent. So porous was the Zebras defence they were lucky not to get whipped.
Only two things, it became obvious, stood between the Zebras and an unexpected loss. The first of these was Eswatini’s own profligacy in front of the goal. The second, and most critical was the performance of Goitseone Phoko in between the Zebras goalposts.
In the absence of Mothusi Cooper, coach Mpote opted for Gape Mohutsiwa to partner Lebogang Ditsele in the middle of the park. While both are good defensive midfielders, none of them is a box-to-box midfielder like Cooper. As expected, both sat behind the defence and rarely, if ever, went on the attack.
The pairing of the two caused the Zebras a lot of grief as it only attracted Eswatini pressure and exposed the Zebras defence. Luckily for the hosts, their shot stopper was on the top of things and smothered Eswatini attacks time and again.
Called on time and again to the Zebras rescue, Phoko delivered. More than once, he denied the Eswatini attackers, most notably Philani Mkhonto and Sabelo Ndzinisa, who had some clear-cut chances come their way. Where Phoko failed, the goalposts came to the rescue.
In his post-match interview, coach Mpote concurred that the absence of Cooper was felt.
His absence, Mpote acknowledged, robbed the Zebras of a player who could not only break attacks but could also keep the ball ticking and instigate attacks into the opponents’ half.
With Eswatini expected to host Botswana for the second leg of the encounter this coming weekend, Mpote said he will be hoping for an improved performance from his charges. This will be the Zebras’ 7th game in a space of 19 days, an equivalent of a game every 2.7 days.
Asked whether this will not lead to fatigue and potential injuries, Mpote said he was not worried. He explained that the team has a good recovery routine and he believed the team will still be good to compete.
The return leg of the encounter between the two is expected to be played in South Africa at a place yet to be confirmed. The winner of the encounter will proceed to the next round where they will meet the winner between Seychelles and Madagascar.