(Zimbabwe win 3-2 on aggregate)
Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
IT had to be him, and, it could only have been him – the talisman, the superman, the star man, the marked man, the stylish man, the deadly man, the rescue man, the magic man, the reliable man, the terrific man, the irresistible man.
That he wasn’t even 100 percent fit, ultimately, didn’t matter at all.
That he didn’t even train with many of his teammates, after the late decision to turn to him to try and provide the X-Factor, for a revamped Warriors side long on ambition, but short on quality, didn’t even matter, in the end.
Khama Billiat – what a fine football player and, more importantly, what a great Warrior.
Forget the fact that, until two minutes into time added on, this was shaping to be one of his poorest games for his country since he transformed himself, alongside Knowledge Musona, into the heart and soul of these Warriors.
Forget the fact that three times, he had been presented with a chance to score from dead ball situations, in promising positions, and had blown away the opportunities as his radar let him down.
Forget the fact that, for large parts of this 2022 World Cup qualifier against Somalia, he appeared to be struggling to find the pace that has made him a menace to defences on the continent.
Because, when his country needed him the most, he was there to deliver and, in the process, ensure the Warriors would not suffer the ignominy of being knocked out of the World Cup qualifiers by lightweights Somalia.
Billiat wasn’t there in Djibouti when the Warriors crashed to one of their worst defeats in history, a 0-1 loss at the hands of the Ocean Stars, with his South African club, Kaizer Chiefs, saying he was nursing an injury.
Given the politics that stalked the absence of many of the regular players of the team, including Musona, his absence fed into the narrative Billiat had decided to stay away from the chaos that had enveloped the Warriors in the aftermath of their poor AFCON campaign.
But, on Monday, ZIFA announced the diminutive forward was flying home for the make-or-break battle against Somalia and, suddenly, the levels of optimism – that the Warriors would find the magic to beat the plucky Ocean Stars – rose a notch higher among the team’s fans.
However, for a long time at the giant stadium yesterday, Billiat struggled to find the spark that many had been hoping his presence would give to the team with the disciplined Somali defence doing a good job on him as they kept numbers around the Warriors star.
On the occasions he pulled clear of the defence, they always found a way to bring him down, frustrating him and choking the production line which many had hoped his presence would provide to the Warriors.
Some of the fans appeared to be frustrated, as he tried, and failed, to find the target while his case wasn’t being helped by lack of support as the Warriors struggled to impose themselves and only had one meaningful shot on target in the first half.
With many of the players in the golden shirts, with those red falling stripes which the fans have said they don’t want to see being associated with their team, struggling badly, and the visitors growing in confidence as they played with both discipline and commitment, this was turning into a nightmare for Billiat and his counterparts.
Even when the outstanding Marshall Munetsi gave them a glimmer of hope to, at least, force the battle into a penalty shootout with a fine overhead kick that found its target in the 77th minute, there was a feeling inside the giant stadium that this was a story that would end badly.
And, when fate appeared to favour the visitors, when the ball bounced off Teenage Hadebe and rolled clear for Omar Abdulla Mohamed to poke past goalkeeper Elvis Chipezeze in the 85th minute, this was as dead, a contest, as World Cup matches can ever be.
With, the Young Warriors being held to a goalless draw by South Africa at Barbourfields yesterday, to crash out of the AFCON Under-23 qualifiers 5-0 on aggregate, this could have been as bad as it can get.
For, what it meant, was that the Warriors had to score twice, in the last minutes of regulation time, and whatever the referee would hand them for time added on.
And, given the way they had struggled as they produced one of their worst performances at home, chances of them doing so were as slim as expecting to find milk when one drills a hole into a football.
But, in the 87th minute, Knox Mutizwa, who should have started because the others didn’t have a pedigree of scoring at this level, gave the home side hope with a bullet of a free-kick that took a slight deflection off a Somali defender – 2-1 for the Warriors on the day and 2-2 on aggregate.
However, given the Ocean Stars had an away goal, the Warriors were going out and everyone could see the ugly headlines around the world once again.
However, halfway into the four minutes of time added on, the Warriors poured forward and Mutizwa found Billiat with a fine pass drilled from the right channel.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
The touch to take ownership of the ball was exquisite, with the outside of his foot, a shimmy fooled his marker and opened a pocket of space and, once he was clear, even from a tricky angle, there was only one thing on Billiat’s mind – to try and go for goal.
And, the product of that effort was beautiful, and decisive, the rising effort flying into the corner of the goalkeeper who simply had no chance – 3-1 on the day and 3-2 on aggregate.
This was as lifeless a performance by the Warriors, as we have seen in recent years but, in the end, they found a way to win, which is what matters because, they had Billiat.
And, when it mattered most, he delivered the killer blow.