By Tadious Manyepo
Harare - As the road to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations begins across the continent, one group is particularly interesting.
Neighbours Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana are all battling for the sole ticket for the bi-annual fiesta to be staged in Cameroon in a pool that also has defending champions Algeria.
This is the first time that the three neighbours find themselves having to face each other at once in an AFCON qualifier.
Zimbabwe play Botswana at the National Sports Stadium on Friday with both sides speaking highly ahead of what promises to be a bumper encounter in Zimbabwe's capital.
Zambia will be out against the Desert Foxes in a simultaneous tie which kicks off at 6pm.
The fact that just four days later, Zimbabwe makes the 450 km to Lusaka for a date against Chipolopolo at the National Heroes Stadium makes the matrix even more intriguing.
On that very day, the Zebras will be hosting Algeria in Gaborone.
Zimbabwe are banking on Aston Villa star midfielder Marvellous Nakamba for inspiration.
Zimbabwe coach Joey Antipas predicted a tough ride in the two matches.
"Look, this is a very tough ride we are staring at. Botswana have improved a lot. Zambia are former African champions. And we are facing both in a space of three days. I know it is going to be very tough for us," said Antipas.
"Look, we have to take one game at a time. Botswana is our immediate concern. They have a very good squad in all departments. They are particularly dangerous when they are attacking. Defensively, they are also very much up to date. We have to be ready, technically, technically and mentally in this match. Mind you this is our first game in the AFCON qualifiers. We need to be very much in it and win for us to broaden our chances. We need to win the Botswana tie at all costs."
He said the game against Zambia on Tuesday will be one of the most highly charged.
"I normally want to talk of the game that we have immediately, that is against Botswana, but well, the match against Zambia is sure to produce fireworks. I am sure Zambia will come to a standstill on Tuesday as we renew our cross-Zambezi rivalry."
Zimbabwe had hoped to rope in England based star Macauley Bonne who got his national documents last week but they will have to wait a bit longer as he is out with an illness.
France based striker Tino Kadewere is also out with an injury but captain Knowledge Musona is back in the fold after missing out on the 2022 World Cup preliminary against Somalia in September due to poor form.