20 January 2012

Senegal/Zambia: Afcon Group Favourites Face Testing First Encounter

Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix
Bouna Coundal of Senegal fails to stop a shot at goal by Rainford Kalaba of Zambia.

Senegal will put their status as many people's pre-tournament favourites to the test when they start their 2012 Africa Cup of Nations Group A campaign against Zambia at the Estadio de Bata on Saturday night (kick-off 21h00 GMT).

The Senegalese used the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 2010 Nations Cup in Angola as ammunition to force out the many of the ageing players in their squad and replace them with a new, exciting, mostly French-born, group of players.

They were without doubt the stars of the qualifiers, coming through a difficult group that included Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With a wealth of talent up front that includes the likes of Newcastle United strikers Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cissé, Lille hotshot Moussa Sow and veteran marksman Mamadou Niang, they are unrivalled in attack.

But as with many sides coming into this tournament, their build-up has not been ideal, with the Senegalese Football Federation (FSF) and the sports ministry at loggerheads over whether to continue with coach Amara Traore.

Traore's previous contract ended on December 15 and the hold-up in offering him a new one meant the team got into camp late and two friendly matches had to be cancelled.

But that appears to be water under the bridge now and the business of winning a football tournament has become priority number one. Whether these Senegalese players can handle the pressure of their new-found status among Africa's elite is possibly the critical question for them ahead of the tournament.

Zambia will be hoping for a repeat, at least, of their quarterfinal showing in the last Nations Cup held in Angola.

The return of coach Herve Renard, who deserted them shortly after that event to chase a big payday with Angola, is a big fill-up for them.

Renard has admitted he was wrong to go for the money and once he made it known he would like to return, the Football Association of Zambia duly dispatched Dario Benotti, the man who had got them to the finals, and re-instated Renard.

The squad remains largely the same as the one that did so well two years ago, and is possibly even stronger, leading to greater expectations among fans and players alike.

These two sides will probably consider themselves favourites for the quarterfinals in this Group A, which also includes co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Libya. Defeat in their opening match should not be a disaster. Butas any coach will tell you, momentum is important in a tournament such as this and getting off on the wrong foot can see a campaign quickly unravel.

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