29 January 2013

Zambia/Burkina Faso: Stop Pitroipa and Traoré, Zambia Coach Tells Team Before Burkina Faso Match in Africa Cup

Zambia coach Hervé Renard issued a simple message to his team on the eve of their make or break clash against Burkina Faso: stop Jonathan Pitroipa and Alain Traoré. The front pair were the star turns as Paul Put's Burkina Faso thrashed Ethiopia 4-0 on the second day of matches in Group C.

Defending champions Zambia face the dynamic duo in the final group stage game on Tuesday needing all three points to be certain of progress to the last eight. Burkina Faso will advance with a draw.

"I've always spoken about these two players," says Renard. "From my home in Zambia I follow the French championship where they play. They're not a surprise to me. Everybody will be aware of them now. If you leave space behind you, Pitroipa and Traoré will kill you."

The pair was largely responsible for carving open the Ethiopian defence when Burkina were down to 10 men in their match last Friday. Traoré bagged a brace and Pitroipa completed the 4-0 annihilation with an elegant side-footed finish after a fleet counter-attack.

"It's amazing what they can do," says Renard. "We have to stop them."

If Zambia fail to gain the three points, they face the ignominy of becoming the first defending champions since Algeria in 1992 to fall before the knockout stages of the subsequent tournament.

It would be a sad conclusion to the emotional voyage of Gabon 2012 where they won the title on penalties against Côte d'Ivoire .

The sceptics say the Ivorians were spooked by the spirits of the 18 Zambian footballers who died in a plane crash just outside Libreville in 1993.

Stoppila Sunzu converting the 18th penalty of the shoot-out might actually bear the Ivorians out.

But for the moment the Zambia team isn't contemplating an early journey back home to reanimate former glories. "We live in a positive way," says skipper Christopher Katongo. "We're looking forward. We're thinking of better things. The players know what's at stake. Back in 2010 in Angola we drew the first game, lost the second and won the third and ended up top of the group. If it can happen there, it can happen now."

That's not wishful thinking but rather the voice of experience. "There's nothing wrong in the squad, it's going smoothly," adds Katongo who's playing in his fourth tournament as skipper. "It's just that the results aren't coming and that happens in football."

Renard and other coaches at the tournament have spoken about the rising technical and tactical standards in African teams. It's no longer a question of how many Big Team will hit against Little Team.

Burkina Faso trounced Ethiopia partly because the Ethiopians lost their attacker Girma Adana and midfield fixer Megersa Asrat in the first half. There was also Put's counter-intuitive masterstroke of leaving Pitroipa and Traoré on the pitch after the dismissal of goalkeeper Abdoulaye Soulama.

There's also a truth insufficiently acknowledged. Zambia have become the lodestar for putative minnows.

The 2012 tournament came to recognise the essence of Zambia. It was an amalgam of hard working individuals who stitched such simplicity into their fabric that they became impossible to beat.

And in the hinterland of the competition, football associations throughout the continent have posed the obvious question. If an assembly of unknowns can explode myths of superiority, then why can't other obscure journeymen?

It is no longer frightening to face a machine whose components have flown in from the German Bundesliga, the English Premier League, Italy 's Serie A or Spain 's La Liga.

What counts is the psychological compatibility of the units once they've arrived and the Zambians were the epitome of the unheralded.

Renard has been working hard to reharness that depth of self-effacement. "We weren't right for the first game against Ethiopia," he admits. "I've accepted responsibility for that. It was my duty to prepare them correctly and I didn't do that. Maybe the players were overconfident but our game against Nigeria was very good. It was a tactical game and if Rainford Kalaba and Collins Mbesuma had converted their chances then we'd talking in a different way.

"They didn't and so we're in this position. We have to be more efficient in front of goal. Burkina Faso were calm when they had their chances against Ethiopia ."

The French coach says he might reshuffle his line-up for the clash in Nelspruit. The leggy wiliness of Emmanuel Mayuka was preferred for the match against Nigeria. The beefy bustle of Mbesuma was the option for the first game against Ethiopia .

"I know all of these players," Renard boasts. "I didn't arrive yesterday. "I know their profiles."

Indeed he does. Their time together stretches back four years. He's become an honorary Zambian in the wake of his achievements with the football squad.

"The most important thing is to be a team," reflects Katongo. "No one gave us a chance against Senegal at the last tournament. They were bigger than us and some of their players were in the top leagues. But it doesn't matter where you play, if you don't have a team you cannot win the Africa Cup of Nations."

Team Zambia 2013 needs to regenerate the romance of the 2012 incarnation to avoid the spectre looming in Nelspruit.

"A big problem is to keep your concentration after a big win," concedes Renard. "It's difficult to keep your humility but it's important in football that whatever you've achieved before you have to concentrate on your next challenge.

"It's important to be confident but if when you step on the field you think you are better than one opponent, you have failed."

A year ago Zambia's steely modesty humbled the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire and the team claimed its first Cup of Nations title. It would be ironic and yet so utterly complimentary if the Stallions of Burkina Faso now run roughshod over the garlands gathered on that balmy, otherworldly night in Libreville.

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