AS African champions Zambia prepare to take on the 'Palancas Negras' of Angola in an international friendly this afternoon, coach Herve Renard has warned opponents at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations finals that the Chipolopolo would be a difficult team to beat.
Renard, who is using the match to gauge the Chipolopolo's readiness ahead of the AFCON title defence that kicks off on January 19, told reporters in Johannesburg yesterday that it would be difficult for any team to beat Zambia at their 'second home' in South Africa.
The 44-year-old taskmaster, who is in his second spell of coaching Chipolopolo, says there is no pressure on his squad, from which three players must drop out by the midnight GMT deadline on January 9 for the final 23-man squad.
"There is no pressure on us because no-one outside Zambia expects us to win the competition again. People do not want to take risks with their predictions," Renard told Sapa-AFP.
"If we do not retain the title it simply means another team was better than us, but it will be very difficult to beat this team in South Africa, which is like a second home for us," he added.
Renard wants his team hyper sharp ahead of the opening pool game against Ethiopia, the 1962 champions who are back at the tournament after a 31-year absence.
"The first game against Ethiopia is very important - it is crucial to start the tournament well. Our aim is to finish first in the group," Renard said.
Nigeria, shock absentees from the 2012 Cup of Nations, and Burkina Faso are the other Group C contenders with the Super Eagles and Chipolopolo expected to fill the top two places and reach the quarterfinals.
Tradition suggests an uphill battle for Zambia to keep the trophy and pocket another $1.5 million cheque as only Egypt (1959, 2008, 2010), Ghana (1965) and Cameroun (2002) have successfully defended the title.
The match against Angola, which starts at 16:00 hours at Dobsonville Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, is one of the four hectic matches that the Chipolopolo will play before the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off on January 21.
After the Angola friendly match, Zambia plays Morocco on January 8 before the Chipolopolo return home with a 'goodbye' match against Norway, and then Namibia will come calling on January 15 at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit.
A practice match against Swaziland, which was set for today, is also on cards at a date and venue to be announced.
This will be the first international friendly match that Renard will be playing with an almost full squad comprising players that won the 2012 AFCON edition save for strikers Jacob Mulenga and Emmanuel Mayuka, who are expected to join the squad today and tomorrow, respectively.
Kennedy Mweene should start in goal ahead of Joshua Titima and Kalililo Kakonje.
Defenders are Emmanuel Mbola, Chisamba Lungu, and Hichani Himoonde while veteran Chintu Kampamba might start in place of Stoppila Sunzu, who is expected to leave for England to finalise his move with Reading.
Joseph Musonda, Davies Nkausu, Saulani Phiri and Francis Kasonde are the other options in defence.
With Rainford Kalaba likely to miss the match as he recovers from injury, Renard would obviously go for Nathan Sinkala and Isaac Chansa in the heart of the midfield while Felix Katongo and Jonas Sakuwaha might start.
In attack, Renard has the option of starting with Collins Mbesuma and captain Christopher Katongo with James Chamanga as another option.
Meanwhile, Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) spokesperson Erick Mwanza said that Mulenga, who plays for FC Utrecht, was scheduled to arrive today and should immediately join the team and start training for Zambia's first game at the tournament against Ethiopia on January 21, in Nelspruit.
The arrival of the two hit-men, who will miss today's match against Angola, would complete Renard's squad readying to retain the AFCON crown won for the first time last year in Libreville, Gabon, after an exciting final against 'The Elephants' of Ivory Coast.