Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
FOR an athlete of his massive frame, the way he defied his weight — and the powerful forces of gravity — to summon his reflexes to fling himself to his left to produce a spectacular one-handed wonder save at Rufaro on Wednesday afternoon, was simply breathtaking.
It’s a measure of the purity of that super save, it didn’t only overshadow the three goals scored in a fiery contest between the champions and one of the serious contenders to their throne, but everything else that had exploded on that field in about an hour-and-half of a titanic battle.
And also dwarfed an ugly last-minute fallout between Lloyd Chitembwe and Ronald Pfumbidzai, in what was probably the midfielder’s swansong match for the Green Machine before he leaves for South Africa, which puts a stain to this fine victory by the champions.
Big goalkeeper Edmore Sibanda had been sidelined by injury for the better part of the past two-and-half months and, during that time, CAPS United saw their Champions League dreams evaporate as opponents took advantage of a leaky defensive shield that had found romance in donating goals.
The unfortunate Jorum Muchambo, who never appears to inject confidence in his backline and has failed to gain the trust of the fans and the diminutive Prosper Chigumba — whose best never appears to be good enough — were tried in goal, but dismally failed to provide the commanding presence that Sibanda gives to this team.
And, crucially, the psychological importance of the seeds of doubt Sibanda’s huge frame plants in opponents trying to beat him and who can’t bully him the way they repeatedly acted when they faced both Muchambo and Chigumba.
The opponents had feasted on that Achilles Heel, like hungry vultures zooming on a carcass, with Libyan side Al Ahli Tripoli scoring eight goals in back-to-back Champions League matches against Makepekepe and Algerian side USM Alger also firing four past them in a brutal reminder of their fatal shortcomings in the key area of goalkeeping.
And, even at home, a team which had powered to glory last year, riding on a firm defence that was the third best in the league and, crucially, which didn’t concede a goal in the final 287 minutes of their campaign, now suddenly looked like a poor clone of the team that won the championship.
Bulawayo clubs, How Mine and Chicken Inn, didn’t match the four-goal demolition job, which the continental giants inflicted on CAPS United, but they came close, very, very close, as they both scored three goals each in their league victories over the champions.
“They were vulnerable in central defence, where their two central defenders were jittery and we capitalised on that,’’ How Mine coach Kelvin Kaindu told our sister newspaper H-Metro.
What Kaindu didn’t also add was the fact that things could probably have been different if Sibanda was in goals because of the confidence his mere presence injects into those who are protecting his area.
And, on a sun-drenched afternoon on Wednesday, the big goalkeeper made his long-awaited return from an enforced absence that had also sparked a hurricane of speculation that he was forcing a move from CAPS United to cross the floor and join Yadah Stars.
His free-kicks might still need some adjusting, which is understandable after his lengthy absence, but he wasn’t found wanting in the execution of the primary role he is in the team to perform in the first place — stopping the opposition from scoring.
His biggest test came in the dying embers of the game, when FC Platinum, gambling for a point that would have felt like a victory, tweaked their formation and threw more men into an attack, which now had the big Takesure Chinyama as its focal point, and repeatedly raided the CAPS United goal with Ali Sadiki a big part of the production line of their attacks.
And, when some touches inside the CAPS United box ended with the industrious Mkhokheli Dube teeing up substitute Hamadzashe Moyo, a boulevard of possibilities emerged for the visitors and Rufaro, until then a concert of celebrations from the home fans, held its breath as the painful reality of conceding another late goal crushed the hearts of the Green Machine family.
There was nothing wrong with Moyo’s close-range connection, firm and giving the ball some flight while angled away from the ‘keeper and as the ball began its journey with destiny — a crucial point for the gritty visitors and another two dropped points for the hosts — time appeared to stand still.
Nine times out of 10 and, maybe, even 10 times out of 10, there would be one conclusion to all this — the ball hitting the back of the net.
But, then, something happened.
Sibanda dived to his left and, even though the proximity of the opponent and the sweet connection should have made all this just a formality with everything in favour of the attacker, but somehow the ‘keeper made a touch with his big left hand and sent the ball spinning over for a corner.
It was a stunning save, whose purity being illustrated by the fact that even as the ball spun away for a corner, there were some in the stadium who still believed it had gone in because the massive odds which were against the ‘keeper making the save.
Sibanda slumped to the floor, probably dazed by everything that had just happened, as his teammates raced to congratulate him for his match-winning brilliance, delivered at the very end of the show, in such spectacular fashion.
“If you believe, then you shouldn’t be shocked because miracles do happen,’’ CAPS United assistant coach Mark Mathe said after the game.
Best save of the season, probably yes, best save I have seen from a Zimbabwean ‘keeper, certainly no!
Nineteen years later, the image of George Mandizvidza seemingly twisting his frame in mid-air and change direction to tip the ball over the bar in Maputo during a Champions League match between Dynamos and Ferroviario looms large and takes pride of first place.
On Wednesday afternoon, the man they call ZiKeeper came close, mighty close, to matching such brilliance with what is being dubbed “Miracle Save’’ which, given his spiritual links in a season when we have already seen the so-called “Miracle Goal,’’ makes it all interesting.