CHAMPIONS Zambia today kick off their Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title defence with a somewhat easy but tricky encounter against the 1962 winners Ethiopia on a wet pitch at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, South Africa.
Ethiopia, who surprised everyone - probably even themselves - by qualifying for the 2013 AFCON at the expense of neighbours Sudan, return to the continental fold after a lengthy absence.
The Chipolopolo, who beat Ivory Coast 8-7 on post-match penalties to win their first ever AFCON championship in February last year, will be aiming at emulating past winners Egypt, Ghana and Cameroun in defending the title.
But a heavy downpour prevented the champions from training yesterday as organisers, in a bid to safeguard the pitch, would only allow the teams to have a 'walk over' to have a feel of the pitch in readiness for tonight's encounter that is likely to be played in wet conditions.
Reports from South Africa indicated that Mbombela remains cloudy and wet, with continuous rainfall over the last 48 hours.
Meteorological experts predicted a wet Monday. It might be a repeat of the 2012 AFCON group match where Zambia played Libya on a waterlogged pitch to draw 2-2.
The case was the same during the South Africa 1996 AFCON finals when Zambia beat Burkina Faso 5-1 on a soggy pitch in Bloemfontein where Kalusha Bwalya hit a hat trick.
Kalusha went on to finish as tournament top scorer with five goals.
But the Chipolopolo, come rain or sunshine, will require victory over an Ethiopian side that is making its first appearance at the competition since the 1982 finals in Libya and also shocked Zambia at the Confederation of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECEFA), winning the quarter-final match 2-1.
The last meeting between these two sides was 31 years ago when Zambia won 1-0 at the tournament that saw the Chipolopolo finish third while Ethiopia were preliminary round casualties.
Coach Herve Renard must be wary of the threat Ethiopia poses to his good start to the title defence as the East African side eliminated Sudan, a team that beat Zambia 2-0 in a 2014 World Cup qualifier.
This is a result that was later reversed as the Sudan used a banned player.
"They have a lot of skilled players able to run up to the end of the 90th minute. We have to be very careful about this team.
"That means it will not be very easy to destabilise this team. That means we know it will be very tough," Renard said.
While the Chipolopolo needed a dramatic penalty shoot-out against Uganda, winning 9-8 to qualify after finishing the two legs 1-all, Ethiopia drew 3-3 with Sudan in Khartoum before winning 2-0 in Addis Ababa to qualify on the away goals rule.
Renard is not worried about his team's poor form going into the opening match at the AFCON tournament, saying his team is saving the best for the tournament and that the Chipolopolo will prove the doubting 'Thomases' wrong.
A combination of Jacob Mulenga and Collins Mbesuma upfront might do the trick for the Chipolopolo with Rainford Kalaba, Nathan Sinkala, Isaac Chansa and Chisamba Lungu expected to provide those balls from the midfield.
Stoppila Sunzu and Hichani Himoonde might partner in central defence with Joseph Musonda and Davies Nkausu starting on sides and Kennedy Mweene in goal.
Skipper Christopher Katongo could also be partnered with Mbesuma upfront.
Ethiopia coach Sewnet Bishaw will be hoping for a good show against the reigning continental champions following pre-tournament 1-0 wins over Niger and Tanzania, including a 1-1 draw against Tunisia.
Bishaw is confident that Ethiopia, a country renowned for its athletic prowess, will try and put shame to Renard's track-and-field metaphor.
The Ethiopian trainer believes the Walya Antelopes' relative anonymity could help them spring a surprise in a group which also has two-time champions, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
But during a Press conference, Bishaw said: "We don't care about the result against Zambia. We've already made history by being here."
Bishaw's players are almost all home-based, from club sides Dedebit, Defence and Saint George.
Star striker, Saladin Said, who features in the Egyptian league, is the only noticeable foreign-based player for Ethiopia.
Probable Line Up:
Kennedy Mweene, Davies Nkausu, Joseph Musonda, Hichani Himoonde, Stoppila Sunzu, Nathan Sinkala, Chisamba Lungu, Isaac Chansa, Collins Mbesuma, Christopher Katongo, Rainford Kalaba.