DEFENDING champions, Zambia's chances of retaining the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) crown were yesterday left hanging by a thread after goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene salvaged a draw for the Chipolopolo against Nigeria.
In this crucial Group C match at Mbombela Stadium here, Mweene gave Zambia a lifeline when he converted from the penalty spot on 84 minutes after Emmanuel Mayuka was impeded inside the box.
The Zambian goalkeeper calmly sent his opposite Vincent Enyeama diving the wrong way and gave the Chipolopolo a last chance to advance to the knockout stage of the 29th AFCON edition in South Africa.
Zambia now need to get a positive result against Burkina Faso on Tuesday to progress to the last eight.
After the match which Zambia had largely dominated, Mweene said the African champions will not give up the crown easily.
This was after he scored the Chipolopolo penalty to level scores against the Super Eagles in a tightly contested match played before an encouraging Zambian crowd.
Mweene, who intimidated Nigeria midfielder Obi Mikel into missing a penalty before scoring his own for the Chipolopolo, said Zambia will qualify to the next round of the competition despite making a slow start to the title defence.
"I have been practising saving and scoring penalties both at my club and at the national team but it was a challenge stepping up to take a penalty when your team is down. The responsibility was given to me and Christopher but since he was substituted, the responsibility was with me.
"We have a big task of beating Burkina Faso because it won't be an easy match as every team wants to beat Zambia. But let me tell them all that Zambia will not give up the title easily as we shall fight to the bitter end and fight to retain the cup," he said.
Nigeria were given the chance to take the lead in the 24th minute after Zambian defender Davies Nkausu, who was preferred in central defence ahead of Hichani Himoonde, brought down Ahmed Musa inside the box.
But lady luck was on the champions' side as John Mikel Obi, who stepped up to take the resultant penalty, placed his shot wide with Mweene doing enough to intimidate the Chelsea star not to score.
However, referee Ghead Grisha shockingly awarded a corner kick despite Mweene not touching the ball.
Both sides went into the break tied at 0-0 and it was Nigeria who stunned the Chipolopolo when Emmanuel Emenike gave them the lead in the 56th minute.
Mikel won the ball from Zambia's Chisamba Lungu, who paid the price for holding the ball too long, to set up Emenike inside the box and the striker made no mistake unleashing a powerful shot past Mweene after dribbling past Nkausu.
With six minutes remaining before the end of the match, Zambia were awarded a lifeline when Emmanuel Mayuka was fouled just inside the box by Eddy Onazi and Mweene made a long run from his goal to convert the kick, sending his opposite counterpart Vincent Enyeama the wrong way.
Coach Herve Renard made two changes to the team that drew 1-all with Ethiopia bringing in Mayuka for Collins Mbesuma with Himoonde making way for left-back Emmanuel Mbola.
The changes meant that Stoppila Sunzu for the first time in as many matches played without Hichani, who looked sluggish against Ethiopia, as he was paired with Nkausu as Joseph Musonda started on the right back.
Chisamba Lungu recovered in time to start in the midfield alongside Nathan Sinkala, Isaac Chansa and Rainford Kalaba while skipper Katongo was given thumbs up to start upfront with Mayuka.
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi gave Victor Moses his first start having missed the opening game against Burkina Faso but shockingly dropped Joseph Yobo while he had to leave out Eric Ambrose, who was serving a suspension.
The first half started on a fast note with Chisamba, who was enjoying himself in midfield making a teasing pass to Kalaba, could only shoot agonisingly wide at goal in the 15th minute.
After conceding the goal, Renard made a double change in the 65th minute, bringing in Mbesuma and Mukuka Mulenga for Chisamba and Christopher, a move that cheered the Zambian fans.
But efforts to find an equaliser failed as in the 71st minute Zambia made a good build-up that saw an interchange of passes between Mbesuma and Chansa but this could not yield results as Kalaba's tap went straight to Nigerian keeper Enyeama.
Jonas Sakuwaha made his 2013 AFCON debut coming in for Chansa in the 72nd minute.
Zambia will now play Burkina Faso on Tuesday (19:00 hours) with Nigeria playing Ethiopia in the other match.
Kennedy Mweene, Joseph Musonda, Davies Nkausu, Emmanuel Mbola, Stoppila Sunzu, Chisamba Lungu (Mukuka Mulenga 56), Isaac Chansa (Jonas Sakuwaha 72), Christopher Katongo (Collins Mbesuma 56), Rainford Kalaba, Nathan Sinkala, Emmanuel Mayuka,
Vincent Enyeama, Elderson Echiejile, Ahmed Musa, Chinenye Emenike, Obi Mikel, Victor Moses, Fegor Ogude, Itama Oboabona, Eddy Onazi, Emmanuel Igiebor, Josiah Omeruo.