Ambitious Chipolopolo gun for CHAN crown

Zambia coach Wedson Nyirenda (R) talks to his assistant Agrey Chiyangi (L) BackpagePix

Despite a recent revival in form, Zambia will face a stern test at the African Nations Championships (CHAN) finals, which begins in Morocco on Saturday.

Coach Wedson Nyirenda named his final 23-man squad at the weekend, having declared a few days earlier that Zambia would go all out to win what would be a second continental crown inside 12 months.

"We are going there to win the title and what is important is to go there with a mind frame of winning," Nyirenda was quoted as saying by the Zambia Daily Mail.

"The team is so disciplined and the players are grasping every little detail. We have a team that can win the CHAN title."

While Nyirenda is talking up his team's title chances, just getting past the opening round could prove a difficult task for Chipolopolo, who kick-off their campaign against Group B opponents Uganda on Sunday, before taking on regional rivals Namibia and West African giants Ivory Coast.

And even though performances at the CHAN tournament do not always reflect the footballing strength of a nation, the outcome of this year's event surely has implications on the immediate future for Zambia, who have included seven players who featured in the recent 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Indeed, Zambian football has been in upbeat mood since their U20 team won the African Youth Championships on home soil last March before reaching the quarterfinals at the subsequent U20 World Cup.

Key members from that team have since joined European clubs while also graduating into the senior side, with their emergence apparently sparking an immediate uptick in fortunes for Zambia.

African young player of the year Patson Daka, along with midfielder Enoch Mwepu and winger Fashion Sakala, produced some encouraging displays as Zambia finished a credible second in a World Cup qualifying group consisting of heavy weights Nigeria, Cameroon and Algeria.

Belgium-based midfielder Emmanuel Banda can fancy his chances of breaking into the Chipolopolo set-up while 18-year-old attacker Edward Chilufya remains a future prospect.

And although these stars are ineligible for CHAN, many of their teammates are set to do duty in Morocco, including three members of the back four who started Zambia's final World Cup qualifier at home to Cameroon, which produced in a pulsating 2-2 draw.

In midfield, the versatile Donashano Malama of Nkana is available to fill the anchorman's role after displacing TP Mazembe's Nathan Sinkala during the World Cup qualifiers. Winger Augustine Mulenga, Player of the Year domestically, is expected to provide the spark to a forward line which also includes Power Dynamos man Alex Ngonga.

Mulenga and Ngonga also featured in the World Cup qualifiers, with the former impressing with his energy down the right wing.

With so many of Zambia's regulars available, a disastrous outing in Morocco could dampen the optimism back home, and make the impressive run in the World Cup qualifiers seem more like a fluke.

In any case, Zambia's recent revival has had its fair share of doubters, with some especially concerned about the long-term prospects of a defence which consists mostly of players still stranded in the local league, even though they are well into their late twenties.

Tempo (31), who partnered Russia-based Stoppila Suzu in the heart of defence, right-back Adrian Chama (28) and left-back Fackson Kapumpu (27) are still plying their trade in Zambia, and while that does not necessarily suggest a lack of ability, the CHAN tournament provides an excellent opportunity to gauge their real worth.

Right-back Simon Silwimba, 26, and midfielder Kondwani Mtonga, 31, are the other names in the CHAN squad who featured in the World Cup qualifiers.

The dropping of young defender Solomon Sakala, who captained the U20 team to victory in the African Youth Championships, suggests little of interest is coming up the ranks on the defensive side of issues.

Then again, this is more or less the same defence which acquitted itself remarkably well in back-to-back wins over star-studded Algeria last September as well as the subsequent 1-0 loss away to Nigeria.

Only goalkeeper Kennedy Mweeni and Sunzu are ineligible from the defence which featured in the World Cup qualifiers. The 33-year-old Mweene's absence, in particular, hands his deputy Toasta Nsabata the opportunity to show he is ready to take over from the veteran Mamelodi Sundowns man.

So while the trailblazing Zambia U20 team has produced an embarrassment of riches in attacking positions, it is now up to this CHAN team to show that the Southern African nation has a decent enough defence to form a reliable basis for sustained success.

Zambia squad

GOALKEEPERS: Moses Mapulanga (Nkana), Toaster Nsabata (Zanaco), Allan Chibwe (Power Dynamos)

DEFENDERS: Simon Silwimba,Fackson Kapumbu (both Zesco United), Lawrence Chungu (Power Dynamos), John Mwangeni (Nkana), Ziyo Tembo (Zanaco),Isaac Shamujompa (Buildcon), Adrian Chama (Green Buffaloes)

MIDFIELDERS: Kondwani Mtonga (Zesco United), Donashano Malama (Nkana),Jack Chirwa, Mike Katiba (both Green Buffaloes), Ernest Mbewe, Augustine Mulenga (both Zanaco), Larry Bwalya,Godfrey Ngwenya (both Power Dynamos),Chanda Mushili (Lumwana Radiants)

STRIKERS: Martin Phiri, Alex Ng'onga (both Power Dynamos), Friday Samu (Green Buffaloes), Lazarus Kambole (Zesco United)