By SAMUEL LUKHANDA -
ZAMBIA today kick-start the chase for the record fifth COSAFA Castle Cup title with an intriguing quarterfinal tie against neighbours Botswana with coach Wedson Nyirenda eager to avoid the jinx that has seen the Chipolopolo tumble at this stage in the past two editions.
This 15:00 hours kickoff clash gets underway at Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg in North-West Province, South Africa.
Zambia was exempted from the preliminary group stage but will need to do better than the previous two editions where they were dumped out by Swaziland (2016) and Namibia (2015) on post match penalties.
Nyirenda selected a relatively inexperienced squad that he hopes would bring back the title Zambia last won in 2013 as he included a trio of graduating Under-20 defenders to help with the cause.
He would be without some of his key players who have been excused as they will be on CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup duty with Zanaco and Zesco United respectively.
Nyirenda, prior to departure, set a modest semifinal target which Football Association of Zambia president Andrew Kamanga dismissed.
Kamanga demanded the Chipolopolo lift the COSAFA Cup as a minimum requirement because it did not matter who gets selected as they represent a proud footballing nation who happen to be a regional heavyweight.
“Winning the COSAFA is the only thing that will restore the pride of the nation. We should not give excuses. Let us set high standards,” Kamanga said.
The coach in his argument said the weight of expectation was affecting his players and cited the Mozambique game where the team lost 1-0 in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier at home as they were under pressure.
Nyirenda with his new look Chipolopolo that got the better of Bafana Bafana in a recent friendly at Maruleng Stadium, would have their work cut out against arguably one of the most improved teams in the region.
He would count on Allan Chibwe in between the sticks with Donashano Malama expected to provide the needed leadership from the back while Adrian Chama will likely partner Isaac Samujomba in central defence with Lawrence Chungu at left wing back.
Nyirenda called Polokwane City anchorman Salulani Phiri to add bite to his midfield where Mwila Phiri, exciting Collins Sikombe and Godfrey Ngwenya will all be fighting for a berth in company of Diamond Chikwekwe.
Inform Brian Mwila should lead the line with either Justin Shonga or Lubinda Mundia.
Botswana on the other hand have had a less than ideal preparations for the tournament as players on Wednesday night threatened to withdraw from the competition demanding unpaid allowances as far back as 2014.
The Botswana Football Association (BFA) threatened to dissolve the team but a compromise was reached and they travelled to South Africa.
Oris Radipotsane will lead the Zebras in Rustenburg after the Englishman Peter Butler parted ways with the team weeks before the tournament taking over at the South African PSL side Platinum Stars who ironically use the Royal Bafokeng as their home base.
Butler led Botswana to the semi finals of the COSAFA competition in 2015 when they knocked out hosts South Africa in the quarterfinals and went one better with a final appearance last year in Namibia.
Despite the Zebras recent good run, they know they are underdogs against one of the traditional heavyweights of the Southern African region. Botswana have only ever faced Zambia twice before in the COSAFA Castle Cup competition.
The first meeting in Lusaka in 2000 ended in a 3-0 defeat while 2006 fixture saw Zambia win 1-0.
The winner of this tie goes to face the winner of the match between host South Africa and Tanzania who are a guest nation at this year’s edition.