NELSPRUIT, South Africa, January 26 – Zambia face a stiff task if they are to avoid the ignominy of becoming the first defending Africa Cup of Nations champions to fail to make it to the quarter-finals since 1992.
Algeria were the last title-holders to go out in the first round, following up their 1990 title win by picking up just one point from two matches two years later in Senegal.
Zambia’s backs are against the wall following a brace of 1-1 draws with Ethiopia and, on Friday, against Nigeria, when ‘keeper Kennedy Mweene saved the day by converting their penalty.
They now face the revelations of the competition, Burkina Faso, in Nelspruit on Tuesday.
Burkina are the shock Group C leaders after shrugging off the disadvantage of being reduced to 10 men to demolish Ethiopia 4-0, with Alain Traore’s deadly left foot doing most of the damage.
That lifted Burkina to four points, with Zambia and Nigeria on two apiece and Ethiopia footing the mini-league on one.
A win against Burkina will see Herve Renard’s men into the last eight — if they register their third successive draw then it will come down to what happens in the tie between Nigeria and Ethiopia being played simultaneously in Rustenburg.
Zambia have history in their favour — they swept Burkina Faso aside 5-1 at the 1996 Nations Cup played in South Africa.
Mweene is hopeful rather than confident the 2012 heroes will not be going home early.
“Look, we still have hope. We’ll work hard in training, we can’t give up. We have to fight, we are the champions after all.
“It won’t be easy, but we can still qualify for the quarter-finals,” said the talismanic keeper who, aside from scoring Friday’s spot-kick, saved a penalty in their opening stalemate against Ethiopia.
Captain Christopher Katongo admitted to the BBC that they face a must-win situation on Tuesday to go through to the knockout stages.
“Everybody knows the importance of the last game — we just wait for the other result, but definitely Nigeria and Zambia have to win their last game.”
Given the circumstances, Renard was relieved not to come away empty handed on Friday night.
The Frenchman said: “Yes, considering the game, of course I’m happy with a draw, we had Nigeria in front of us. We are still in a good way to get qualification.”
Emmanuel Emenike’s goal put Nigeria in the driving seat before Mweene made the long walk up from his goal to convert a spot kick that many felt was harshly awarded when Ogenyi Onazi tangled with Emmanuel Mayuka in the box.
Renard reflected: “I thought we played a very good match, and deserved the draw.
“We found the resources to come back, and had two decent chances before getting our penalty. We can be very happy with the result.”
He will be even happier if he can hatch a plan to overcome buoyant Burkina here on Tuesday.