Big World Cup week for Chipolopolo, Bafana Bafana
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – Zambia’s teenage football stars have delivered in a big way this year with the country’s Under-20 team winning their maiden Africa Under-20 Nations Cup crown on home soil and the Under-17 side capturing the COSAFA Youth Cup in Mauritius.
The challenge has now been thrown to the senior team, Chipolopolo, to follow suit and a home assignment against Algeria this weekend provides them with a golden chance to breathe life into their campaign to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in the country’s history.
The Zambians will host the Desert Foxes at the Heroes National Stadium in Lusaka on Saturday before the two countries clash again next Tuesday in Algiers in a blockbuster double-header that will go a long way in defining their quest for a place in Russia next year.
Both sides started slowly, in a very tough group featuring Nigeria and Cameroon. The Algerians are bottom of the group with just one point and Chipolopolo in third place, also with a point, after two group matches.
The Zambians fought long and hard for that point by holding out to a draw in Cameroon against the African champions, which represented a huge improvement from the 2-1 defeat, at the hands of the Super Eagles.
Coach Wedson Nyirenda blamed that loss to carelessness and has turned to the stars of the Under-20 side for salvation by drafting seven members of that triumphant team for the assignment against the Algerians.
Fashion Sakala and Patson Daka were the standout players for the Zambia Under-20 side in their successful adventure to be crowned champions of Africa and have since moved to Europe where they are showing a lot of promise.
Nyirenda now believes the duo can make the grade in the senior team and has drafted them for the tough tests against an Algerian side rich in individual talent, including the Leicester City duo of Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani but has been struggling to play as a unit this year.
The Desert Foxes were one of the favourites for the African Nations Cup title in Gabon earlier this year but failed to win a single match in their three games after struggling from the first game when they needed a late Mahrez equaliser to steal a point from Zimbabwe.
Enock Mwepu, Edward Chilufya Emmanuel Banda, Moses Nyondo and Boston Muchindu have been included in the squad for the two games against the Algerians although captain Rainford Kalaba, has been dropped after violating the coach’s disciplinary code when he stormed straight into the dressing room after being substituted in his last match.
Nyirenda is confident his youngsters will blend with the senior players.
“They are one and they will be working under same conditions,’’ the coach told reporters when he named his squad. “Whoever impresses take the position.
“There is nothing like the senior players being jealous of the younger ones. This is a team, I think we are blending them together.
“We have been building a big pool for Zambia in the recent past. And I think the local players have shown that they can do the job. We are giving them the chance to showcase their talent.’’
The Algerians have their fair share of challenges and when they take on Zambia, a third different coach in three World Cup matches, will be in charge.
Milovan Rajevac started the campaign in charge of the Desert Foxes when they were held to a one all draw at home by the Indomitable Lions while Georges Leekens was in charge for the second game in which they slumped to a 3-1 away defeat in Nigeria.
Now, Spanish coach Lucas Alcaraz will take charge of the two matches against the Zambians.
“Obviously, we’re not the favourites, but we have to do everything in our power to get as many points and wins as we can. We have to fight hard in every game to make sure there are no regrets at the end of it all,” he told the official FIFA website.
“We’re going to prepare in depth for the two matches against Zambia. The FIFA calendar dictates that our future’s going to hinge on those two games, played in the space of just five days.
“The players and the staff know what they have to do, what’s expected of them.’’
South Africa will also have a new coach in charge of their 2018 World Cup campaign with Stuart Baxter at the helm of the side when they take on Cape Verde in Praia before hosting the Atlantic Ocean islanders next week in Durban.
Bafana Bafana have struggled against the lightweights in recent years while doing well against the giants with Baxter starting his latest romance with the team with an impressive 2-0 away win over Nigeria in a 2017 AFCON qualifier.
“The truth is we have not been very good against the so-called minors. We can do well against Nigeria, but we can’t beat a side like Mauritania, for instance,’’ the coach noted when he announced his squad for the Cape Verde battles.
“We can’t take this for granted with our previous history, let alone the fact that we are playing a Cape Verde side with players from Portugal, and the fact that they are in their own backyard.
“We said we wanted warriors going to Nigeria. We will need warriors here, too. A steely mentality to get the three points, so that when we come back to Durban, we are able to open them up a little bit more.’’
South Africa has four points from two matches, the same as leaders Burkina Faso, in a group that also features Senegal, who have three points, and Cape Verde, who are yet to put a point on the board.
With Burkina Faso and Senegal battling and cancelling each other over two matches, this could be the best chance for Bafana Bafana, should they get maximum points against Cape Verde, to make a big statement.