Khama Billiat is the latest member of the influential group of Warriors to pull out of the 2021 AFCON qualifiers against Botswana and Zambia later this month.
The Kaizer Chiefs forward has failed to recover in time to be drafted for national duty, even though he was named in the bloated squad for training camp.
It’s the latest major setback to hit the Warriors’ bid to qualify for the Nations Cup finals set for Cameroon next January.
Zdravko Logarusic’s men need to win either one, or both, of their final two matches, against their two neighbours, to qualify for their third straight AFCON finals.
The Warriors have never qualified for the tournament three times in a row, although the decision by CAF to have a 24-team tourney means the current crop have a better chance, of playing at the showcase, compared to those who came before them.
The first 24-team Nations Cup finals was held in Egypt two years ago where the Warriors, plagued by a number of in-house disruptions, crashed out after fining bottom of their group.
A point against Uganda, in the second match, with Billiat scoring their goal, was the only time they picked something, from that campaign, with defeats coming at the hands of Egypt and the DRC.
Now, Billiat, has been ruled out of the final two qualifiers set for this month.
Zimbabwe take on Botswana, away on March 25, before hosting Zambia, at the National Sports Stadium, four days later.
Already Aston Villa midfielder Marvelous Nakamba is out of the crucial ties.
And, so is the quartet of Jordan Zemura (Bournemouth), Brendan Galloway (Luton), Admiral Muskwe (Wycombe) and Tendayi Darikwa (Wigan Athletic) who are all based in England.
High-flying Lyon forward Tino Kadewere has also been ruled out along with fellow French Ligue 1 utility player Marshal Munetsi, who turns out for Stade Reims.
There are also genuine fears striker David Moyo, who plies his trade in the Scottish Premiership for Hamilton Academical, will not fly home for the two assignments.
And, now, add the team’s poster boy, Billiat, to that list.
The Kaizer Chiefs forward has been on the sidelines, for a number of weeks now, but there were hopes he would recover, on time, to lead the Warriors attack.
However, Billiat will only be able to start non-contact training on March 22, the same day the Warriors are expected to start trooping into camp, ahead of their flight to Botswana.
It’s only on April 2, that the former Mamelodi Sundowns and CAPS United forward is only expected to return to the playing field.
Warriors manager Wellington Mandare confirmed that because of the complicated recovery timelines, Billiat’s doctor had advised them the forward would not be able to play in both fixtures.
“It’s a massive blow for the team and the nation, Billiat won’t be in the team due to injury,” said Mpandare.
“We are always in touch with his doctor, the player won’t be ready by the time we play the games.
“He is still down with an injury and is expected to be back at training on March 22. He will only be able to play on April 2.
“We had been waiting for the report for some days, and his medical team has just confirmed the bad news.
“We will have to do without him, unfortunately.”
Captain Knowledge Musona had also been a huge doubt because of injury, but the KAS Eupen forward has since recovered and has confirmed his availability for the two matches.
With Billiat, and eight others, who have been ruled out for various reasons, it means that only 23 players from the provisional squad have remained in the team.
Six of the seven home-based players have been placed on standby, with only goalkeeper Ariel Sibanda expected to go into a secure bio-bubble, together with other officials, today.
FC Platinum midfielder Brian Banda, Dynamos’ King Nadolo, the pair of Farai Matare and Shadreck Nyahwa of Bulawayo Chiefs and Carlos Mavhurume, who play for CAPS United, as well as Harare City midfielder, Tatenda Tavengwa, have all been placed on stand-by.
Sibanda was one of the three goalkeepers who were on national duty with the Warriors, in their CHAN finals campaign in Cameroon, which ended on February 7.
He started Zimbabwe’s opening match against the hosts, which ended 1-0 in favour of Cameroon, before sitting out the other two matches against Burkina Faso and Mali.
Dynamos’ Simba Chinani and Ngezi’s Nelson Chadya guarded the posts in those matches.
Both Chinani and Chadya were overlooked by Loga, as he battles to strengthen the department, which of late has become Zimbabwe’s Achilles Heel.
The Croatian gaffer has drafted in Michigan Stars goalkeeper Tatenda Mkuruva, who makes a return to the Warriors fold after more than three years.
However, it’s yet to be seen if Mkuruva will fly home for the two matches.
Highly-rated Spain-based keeper Martin Mapisa and Nkana Goalminder Talbert Shumba are the others, who will be competing for a starting place, with Sibanda.
“Ariel (Sibanda), together with other officials, will be getting into a bio-secure bubble tomorrow (today). The others remain part of the provisional squad but will be on standby,’’ said Mpandare.
“All foreign-based players, save for those in the UK and France, have confirmed their availability and we are very happy with that.
“We cannot rule out last-minute changes but, as it stands, we have a strong team.”
The trio of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia are fighting for the remaining sole Group H ticket, to qualify for the AFCON finals, next year.
Leaders Algeria have already secured their berth after accumulating 10 points from four matches.
Zimbabwe are second with five points and will qualify for the finals if they beat Botswana and Zambia fail to win against Algeria at home.