BATA, Equatorial Guinea, Feb 8 – The heat will be on Ghana and off Zambia when they clash in this steamy port city on Wednesday with a place in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations final at stake.
“We relish being among the favourites and there is additional pressure on the team because I have told them many times that Ghana must win the Cup of Nations for the first time in 30 years.”
Severely depleted Ghana finished runners-up to Egypt in the 2010 final and later that year became only the third African country to reach the World Cup quarter-finals before losing on penalties to Uruguay.
By reaching the penultimate stage of the biennial African football showcase for the first time since 1996, Zambia have met the pre-tournament target of French coach Herve Renard.
“There is no more pressure on us,” said Renard, “and now we can dream of going all the way to the final. Ghana are favourites, but we will be prepared for them.”
Playing in the February 12 decider would have special significance for the Copper Bullets as it will be hosted by Gabon, off whose coast a plane carrying the 1993 Zambian squad crashed with no survivors among the 30 on board.
“Imagine if we could lift the trophy in Libreville — it would be a fantastic way to honour the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving the land they loved,” added Renard.
Although Ghana have won two of three previous Cup of Nations matches between the countries, Zambia are likely to be the fresher outfit come the late afternoon kick-off in the most populous Equatoguinean city.
While Zambia cruised to a 3-0 quarter-final win over Sudan in Bata last Saturday, Ghana were taken to extra time a day later before overcoming 10-man Tunisia 2-1 in south-eastern Gabonese city Franceville.
Renard also has a more settled line-up with 10 starting in all four matches against Senegal, Libya, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan while full-backs Francis Kasonde and Davies Nkausu have made two appearances each.
Goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, defender John Boye, midfielders Andre Ayew, Anthony Annan and Emmanuel Agyemang Badu and striker Asamoah Gyan are the six Black Stars who started against Botswana, Mali, Guinea and Tunisia.
Captain John Mensah scored the winner against Botswana but was also red carded, ruling him out of the impressive win over Mali, and injury sidelined him for the Guinea game before he returned and scored against Tunisia.
Should Mensah be selected, his battle with rival captain Christopher Katongo is set to be a key clash in the struggle for victory and a final date against Didier Drogba-skippered Ivory Coast or Seydou Keita-inspired Mali.
While Ghana boast footballers with Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1 clubs, Switzerland-based striker Emmanuel Mayuka is the only Zambian playing top-flight football in Europe.
But big names do not scare the Copper Bullets as they launched their campaign with a shock victory over a Senegalese squad that included Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse of Newcastle United and Moussa Sow then of French champions Lille and now of Fenerbahce.
“We have no big names and our star is the team,” says Renard while Stevanovic counters that “we have a chance to win trophies because my players are fantastic professionals.”