When the group stage of the World cup qualifiers in Africa kicked off last year in October, the Zambians would not have believed that they would be in this position after they lost their first match to Nigeria at home. They have since turned their fortunes around and are possibly two wins away from a maiden appearance at the Mundial. They are high on confidence going into this weekend’s game against Nigeria after recording consecutive wins against Algeria, home and away.
One thing the Zambians did was to draft in a lot of youngsters from their impressive youth teams into the main national team and the result has been amazing. They also haven’t lost a game away from home since the start of the qualifying series and would want to continue in that form to keep their chances of grabbing the group’s sole ticket alive.
A defeat will signal the end of that dream and they will be keen to avoid it and keep it alive for as long as they can. The Chipolopolo (Copper bullets) will be coming to Uyo with the entire arsenal they can muster and hope that it will be enough to shoot down the high flying super eagles. I will be looking at five of their key players heading into this encounter that the Super Eagles should be wary of.
The former Zanaco FC player’s four goals helped the Junior Chipolopolo reach the quarterfinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time in the country’s footballing history. Featuring on the left side of the team’s attacking triumvirate, Sakala turned in a string of mesmeric displays to enhance his growing reputation as one of the game’s most promising players. He is known for his technical ability, confidence in possession and lethal finishing with either foot. He signed with Spartak Moscow and after playing for a while with the reserve team has been drafted into the main team. The forward is one player who seems destined for great things and since he hasn’t scored yet for the Chipolopolo in this World Cup qualifying tournament, he would love to open his account against the Super Eagles and he must be watched closely.
The 18-year-old was named Player of the Tournament for his four goals at the 2017 U20 Cup of Nations in March. His standout quality is his athleticism, explosive acceleration, the ability to manoeuvre his body to get shots away from tight angles and his ability to stretch defences. On his day, he can destroy any defence as long as he gets quality supply as he proved with his winning strike against Algeria in Constantine last month. The athletic built forward could spearhead the attack; play behind the main striker or even on the wings. He has already won a dozen full international caps for Zambia and was one of the very potent attacking trio in the successful U-20 team. The central defensive pairing of William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun should be very wary about this young man if he gets to play in this game as he is reportedly carrying a knock.
The Zesco United vice-captain is the water carrier in this Chipolopolo team, he does most of the of dirty work in the middle of the park and his exceptional work rate will be needed to give the other midfielders freedom going forward. He is a direct replacement for Nathan Sinkala, who was an important member of the AFCON 2012-winning team and was left out of this squad by Coach Wedson Nyirenda. He has been his club’s Player of the Season four times since 2008. He is also a very versatile player and has even played in the central defence for his country. His main focus will be to stifle John Mikel Obi, the Super Eagles’ captain and stop him from exerting his creative influence on the team.
Upcoming midfield maestro Enoch ‘Computer Mwepu’ anchored Zambia U- 20 midfield role that saw the first ever Zambian exploits of the junior team lifting the COSAFA U20, the CAF U20 and reaching the quarterfinals of the FIFA U20 World Cup. Mwepu, referred to as ‘Computer’ for his intuitive midfield play and deft passes, has been compared to French midfield star, Paul Pogba. He can play anywhere across the middle and can also be deployed as a winger if the need arises. The presence of Mtonga will afford him a lot of freedom to utilize unmarked spaces in the middle of the park against Nigeria and that is where he can be very deadly. He also has an eye for goals and if allowed enough freedom he might do some damage. It will be interesting to watch him battle it out with Wilfred Ndidi in midfield and that will be a key battle between two of the rising midfield talents in African football. 19-year-old Enock plies his trade in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg.
The veteran custodian showed why he is Zambia’s undisputed first-choice goalkeeper in back-to-back wins against Algeria after pulling a string of excellent saves in both games. His experience and confidence will be very important for the Chipolopolo in Uyo. He was one of the main reasons Zambia won AFCON 2012 in Gabon. The only set-back for this top-class shot-stopper is that he has been struggling for game time at his South African club Mamelodi Sundowns lately. However, that doesn’t really seem to matter to him when it comes to performing for his national team and the whole of Zambia must have been relieved when he was declared to have fully recovered from a thigh strain he suffered soon after the second World Cup qualifier against Algeria last month. He is the captain of the team and a huge source of inspiration to his teammates with his calm and assured persona as the last line of defence.