By Gilbert Phiri
The optimism in the air that Zambia is on the verge of repeating its feats of reaching the finals of the African Cup of Nations as it did in 1974 and 1994 is not misplaced neither is it fanciful. The Zambians have played the best football at this edition of the tournament. The attacking trio of Kalaba, Katongo and Mayuka have lit up a tournament which, in some quarters, has been criticised as being rather dull. The tactical discipline of the team has been amazing, of particular note has been the emergence of a solid central defence pairing of Stophila Sunzu and Hichani Himoonde.
The remarkable powers to recover when down as Chipolopolo did against Libya is part of the reason why even skeptics can be won over to believing the distinct possibility of Zambia spanking the Black Stars on Wednesday en route to engaging either the Ivory Coast or Mali in the final on Sunday! Not to be forgotten is the ease with which we thumped the pre-tournament favourites, Senegal! On this evidence, who can be faulted for being optimistic that Chipolopolo stands a good chance of proceeding to the final?
Further, the Coach, Herve Renard has previously been part of the Black Stars technical team and he will know a few “secrets” about them. From what we have seen of Ghana in this tournament so far, they have a potent threat in Andre “Dede” Ayew who can hurt Chipolopolo with his burst of speed and dribbling skills. Andre Ayew’s brother Jordan was brilliant against the Tunisians, he is versatile on the left flank either as a defender or attacking midfielder. Asamoah Gyan’s striking prowess cannot be ignored either. He is quick around the box and packs a powerful shot. That said, it is in the midfield where the secret of the strength of the Black Stars lies. The combination of Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and the pint-sized Anthony Annan was the bright spark in a largely lethagic Ghana display during the first round of the tournament. Their defensive pairing of John Boye and John Mensah or Isaac Vorsah is as solid as they come.
The weakest parts of the Ghanaian team are in the left and right back positions. It is in these positions where Zambia can inflict maximum damage on Ghana if Kalaba and Katongo will be in rampaging form. Ghana have interchangeably used John Paintsil and Inkoom at right back throughout the tournament with both showing that their strength is in making overlapping runs rather than resolute defending. Tunisia knew this very well and took advantage of the vulnerabilities of Inkoom at right back to threaten Ghana’s goal. Alhassan at left back is equally a good player going forward but one that can be taken apart by a more creative forward. In the Black Star’s goal, Adam Kwarasey’s frailties were all too apparent during the group games. By now Herve Renard must already know all these weaknesses and even more.
In short, there is nothing special about these Black Stars. The same blood that courses in their veins also flows in the Zambians. Chipolopolo can match them man-for-man in human resource. The only edge that Ghana has over Zambia, at least on paper, is that it has more players plying their trade in big European leagues and therefore their players are widely-known on a global level due to the power of television, just like the Senegalese! Aside these factors, one will really have to wreck their brains in working out what separates the two sides. It certainly isn’t a gulf in talent! To this end, Zambia will have to believe that the Cup is theirs for the taking and as such the approach to this very important game on Wednesday will be of prime importance.
Tactically, it is very likely that Herve Renard is unlikely to change his usual line-up which has led Chipolopolo to the semi-finals. However, against Ghana he must not lose sight of the stabilising effect that the bringing on of Francis Kasonde had on the Zambian midfield in the game against Sudan.
Will he start him in place of the adventurous Chisamba Lungu? How about Jonas Sakuwaha? With noted weaknesses in Ghana’s wing back positions, Chipolopolo need a winger to continuously prod. We saw how hungry Jonas was when he came on against Sudan. Will he be unleashed in the starting eleven? Will Chamanga be the one to duel with the man-mountains in the Ghanaian central defence? Or will Mayuka start again? We can only speculate because as things currently stand, Herve Renard has made all the right calls and his tactics have been spot on. He is not about to fail in a match that might define his managerial career for years to come.
The Zambian players will no doubt be aware that the match on Wednesday will attract millions of viewers around the world. In England, the game will be shown on both ITV and British Eurosport channels. Someone very important in football might just be watching and who knows what he might like? This is a distinct possibility. The players must realise that their lives and personal economy might be turned around just by this one match and as such they must play like it is their last game on earth. And while the players are at it, they must spare a thought to the long-suffering fans who have been waiting all their lives for Chipolopolo to win a meaningful trophy.