[TR Sport] Russia 2018: Fumbling giants target revival in Ndola

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The 2018 World Cup qualifier between Nigeria and Zambia promises to be explosive, if past confrontations are anything to go by. ’TANA AIYEJINA takes a historical look at both teams and what could be in the battle of Ndola, in this report

The Super Eagles can boast of winning the Africa Cup of Nations three times and attending five World Cups. But not when they have a fixture against Zambia’s Chipolopolo, who have just one African title to their name and no appearance at the World Cup.

Both countries have met a further 15 times since their first clash in 1973, with the Eagles triumphing on six occasions while the Zambians have won five times.

Even though the Nigerians boast a slight edge over their southern African counterparts, they would agree that the battles between both sides have always been titanic.

And the rivalry continues on Sunday (today), when the Eagles battle the Chipolopolo in a Russia 2018 World Cup Group B qualifier at the 49,800 capacity Levy Mwanawasa Stadium, Ndola. Former African champions Algeria and Cameroon are the other teams in the pool dubbed Group of Death.

Incidentally, the duo has experienced dwindling fortunes since ruling the continent in 2012 and 2013 respectively. While Nigeria missed out on two AFCON tournaments afterwards, the Zambians will also not make the trip to Gabon for next year’s showpiece.

This crucial game serves as a platform for both teams to win back the confidence of their fans. And Chipolopolo coach Wedson Nyirenda is banking on his team’s reputation to bounce back to reckoning when the odds seemed stacked against them.

A familiar case was at the 1988 Olympics where a Zambian side hammered Italy 4-0 and went on to top their group at the event; and in 1994, when they reached the AFCON final, after losing a whole generation of their best players, only to lose to the Super Eagles.

But you can only underrate the Zambians, who have been dogged by a string of poor results, at your own peril, insists Nyirenda, who says his side are not afraid of Nigeria’s Europe-based stars.

Chelsea midfielder Mikel Obi leads an EPL legion which includes Ahmed Musa, impressive youngsters Kelechi Iheanacho (Manchester City) and Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) as well as experienced Olympiacos striker Brown Ideye, who returned to the side in the 2017 AFCON qualifier against Tanzania in September.

“I think the composition of the team (Eagles) would even be an advantage to us because it motivates the players before they play the game. I know Chipolopolo; when you think they have gone low, that’s when they come up and when you look at the way we are preparing, we look set and we are aiming high,” Zambian newspaper The Post quoted Nyirenda as saying.

Aside an African Nations Championship qualifying defeat to bitter rivals Zimbabwe, which eliminated them from the 2014 CHAN three years ago, Zambia haven’t lost a game in Ndola. Nyirenda and his team hope to continue the tradition.

“The most important thing and what we are working on is to make our home a fortress, meaning win at home and try to control the game outside. That’s what we are aiming to do and if we get a draw away, it is well also because we would have stopped the other team from getting points on us and stop them from going on top of us.

 “I think our target is to collect all the nine points at home and get as much as we can away from home. The competition is so high but what I like the most is the attitude of senior players, the way the professionals are accommodating and helping the young ones, it is so good,” said Nyirenda.

Eagles gaffer Gernot Rohr is relying on 20-year-old Iwobi to wreak havoc on the home side. The young striker has played a major role in Arsenal’s fine form this season, and is set to be rewarded with a pay rise by the Gunners.

The German hopes the emerging star can solve the Eagles attacking problems, after a woeful outing by his strikers in the 1-0 win over the Taifa Stars.

 “I count a lot on him to help us win the game. He was not in the last game against Tanzania because he was injured. He is a good player and I hope he is fully integrated for our first big match in Ndola. We must have a good attack, play as a team and have players who can score. That was the problem in Uyo where we did not score enough – we had 27 shots at goal and only got a goal. It was a problem,” he stated.

Fringe Eagles defender Ugo Ukah’s only cap for the national team was a friendly against Zambia in 2011 and he believes with the form of the Nigerian team, they can overcome the home side.

“Finally, we are beginning to see in the national team, players that are doing well in Europe’s tough leagues. And there is a good mix between the young, talented players and the more experienced and established ones. So, I believe the experience is there to get the job done,” the Selangor centre-back said.

“The Zambians are good, so our players must follow the coach’s tactics and put it to work but more importantly, team spirit and commitment is the master key for success,  and that’s what we expect from them.”

Many have questioned the exclusion of Hapoel Beer Sheva midfilder John Ogu from Rohr’s list of players. The combative player’s scintillating form was a major factor in Beer Sheva winning the Israeli Premier League title and the Super Cup.

But Ogu has thrown his weight behind the squad. “If you are doing well for your club, you deserve a call-up to the national team but I’m not angry at being left out. I’m working on my game to improve myself as a player; if my time comes, I will be back to the team,” he told SUNDAY PUNCH.

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He added, “It’s going to be a difficult match but we have to get the right result because that will determine our chances of qualification from the group. Thank God we have the players and we also have a good coach now.”

Also left out is Sudan-based goals scorer of repute, Kelechi Osunwa. The 31-year-old Al Ahly Shendi striker notched 38 goals this season to become the all-time highest goals scorer in a single season in the Arab leagues.

A section of the media believe the former Al Hilal and Al Merreikh player’s knowledge of the African game could prove vital, if he was handed an invitation but Osunwa laments Nigeria’s penchant for big names.

“Most of them (Eagles) come from Europe to play and even though they are Nigerians, are not used to this atmosphere and the setting. The Europeans and Africans’ style of play is different.

“When Zambia won the 2012 AFCON, they had my teammate in Sudan, Jonas Sakuwaha, in the squad and we were always talking. Their coach Herve Renard built the side around players based in Africa but in Nigeria we believe in big names and those earning big money. I’m alright and always wish the team well,” Osunwa stated.

Indeed, Zambia hope the 35 degrees heat at kick-off time will unsettle the visitors, whose squad are dominated by Europe-based players.

Nyirenda says his own team have adapted to the weather.

“Our players are highly professional, whether local or those playing from abroad, they have adapted very well to the heat and that was why we started training today (Saturday) at the same time is the kick-off time,” he said.

“And the training was at high speed, it was high intensity training, which they did for 87 per cent of the training and it was very good.”

Despite earlier complaints by NFF president Amaju Pinnick that the football body was incapable of funding the team’s trip to Zambia, politicians and businessmen were included on the trip to Ndola after President Muhammadu Buhari released funds to the federation.

The Nigerian delegation to Zambia arrived in Ndola on Saturday afternoon led by sports minister Solomon Dalung. Other members of the delegation include NFF president Amaju Pinnick, NFF vice presidents Seyi Akinwunmi and Shehu Dikko, some members of the National Assembly and some members of the NFF Executive Committee.

Officials of the High Commission of Nigeria in Zambia and officials from the Football Association of Zambia welcomed the delegation, with a small group of Nigerian youths waving a big banner and miniature Nigerian flags.

The Eagles are lodged at the Protea Hotel Marriott, which is adjacent to the match venue.

Games between both sides have more often than not been very explosive. One of such examples was their last game, a Group C 2013 Africa Cup of Nations tie at the packed Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, South Africa.

The Zambians were defending their title, having won the tournament a year earlier in Gabon, and were brimming with confidence. But Nigeria arrived in South Africa as usual with loads of controversies between the team and the Nigeria Football Federation officials.

Nigeria dethroned Zambia but they exited the tournament with their heads held high after a draw with their more illustrious opponents.

Chelsea midfielder Mikel Obi blazed an early penalty high and wide but the powerful Emmanuel Emenike put Nigeria ahead in the 57th minute. Man-of-the-match Kennedy Mwenne, who had thwarted several efforts of the West Africans, then blasted an 85th minute penalty past his opposite number, Vincent Enyeama, to ensure score stood at 1-1. Nigeria went on to win the trophy.

But the Nigerians were not as lucky after a laboured win over the Zambians at the quarterfinals of the competition in Angola three years earlier.

Zambia, managed by little-known Frenchman Herve Renard, were hard done by after losing 5-4 on penalties after 120 minutes of football failed to produce a goal from both sides.

Keeper Enyeama was the hero this time, stopping every Zambian onslaught as the Eagles defence looked to cave in. But they held on to the lottery of the penalties and again, it was Enyeama to the rescue, the former Enyimba shot stopper diving full length to his right to stop Thomas Nyirenda’s effort in front of 10,000 fans at the Estádio Nacional da Tundavala, Lubango.

But the Lille man wasn’t done yet. He then paid back Mweene back in his own coin, sending him the wrong way, just like the Zambian did to him with his earlier kick, and handing the Eagles a last four ticket.

But the game had sapped so much energy from the Eagles and they bowed out 1-0 to fierce rivals Ghana’s Black Stars, after a tired display at the Estádio 11 de Novembro, Luanda.

However, the most memorable encounter between both sides was the final of the 1994 AFCON in Tunisia.

Zambia had lost a generation of their best players who perished in a plane crash on the coast of Libreville. But captain Kalush Bwalya, who escaped the mishap, led a new generation of players that reached the AFCON final.

Defender Elijah Litana grabbed an early lead for the Chipolopolo but Emmanuel Amuneke ended their hopes with a brace, as Nigeria ran away as AFCON winners for a second time. But the Zambians received global praises for their undying spirit.

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