EBEBIYIN, Equatorial Guinea, January 21 – Tunisia coach George Leekens has played down the strength of his team ahead of an Africa Cup of Nations showdown with fellow former champions Zambia in Equatorial Guinea Thursday.
The Carthage Eagles were ranked the second best African national team behind neighbours Algeria by FIFA this month.
That placing puts them five spots above nearest Group B rivals Cape Verde, nine ahead of Zambia and 11 above the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And a leading British bookmaker has made the North Africans 9-1 fourth favourites to go all the way and win the February 8 final.
But far from seeing his Eagles as strong title candidates, Belgian Leekens surprised reporters in north-eastern town Ebebiyin by saying Tunisia were not even the group favourites.
This view contrasts with the popular pre-tournament media belief that Cape Verde, DR Congo and Zambia would fight for second spot behind Tunisia.
Leekens, twice manager of Belgium and briefly coach of Algeria, said: “At this stage every team in the group is the favourite to finish on top.
“Tunisia are not the favourites to win the group. We have never said we are going to top the final standings.”
His caution stems partly from a less-than-impressive 1-1 opening draw with Cape Verde last Sunday.
Mohamed Moncer gave the 2004 champions a mid-second-half lead only for Heldon to level from a penalty he created soon after.
“We will be more focused for our next two games,” promised Leekens, referring to fixtures against the Zambians and the Congolese.
He blamed late injury-induced squad changes which saw Fakhreddine Ben Youssef and Saber Khalifa replaced by Ahmed Akaichi and Edem Rjaibi for the moderate performance.
“We used two newcomers against Cape Verde and this upset our rhythm. Opening group games are always difficult because you do not know how your opponents play.”
Zambia, shock winners of the 2012 Cup of Nations co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea, were fortunate to draw 1-1 with DR Congo after snatching a 62-second lead through Given Singuluma.
Coach Honour Janza looked on the bright side: “It was most important that we did not lose, and lessons were learnt.”
The Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) must do without midfielder Nathan Sinkala, whose knee injury against the Congolese will sideline him for four weeks.
Cup of Nations rules do not permit replacements.
Veteran DR Congo goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba says the Leopards must be wary of the Cape Verde Blue Sharks in the second match of a Neuvo Estadio de Ebebiyin double-header.
“We must take Cape Verde seriously because they are organised and have proved to everyone that they deserve respect,” said the shot-stopper famous for his bouncing-bottom goal celebrations.