Durban — NOW that the dust has settled between the Council of African Football Associations (COSAFA) and Zimbabwe after the latter pulled out of hosting the tournament, the country is again a favourite to put some daylight between themselves and nearest rivals when the COSAFA Cup kicks off in South Africa this weekend.
Conversely, the hosts are counting on home advantage and Zambia are eager to redeem lost pride.
The tournament starts in Durban this weekend after Zimbabwe pulled out citing insufficient time to prepare, incurring the wrath of COSAFA and rising a ban.
While Angola are the perennial dark horses, expect the likes of Namibia to stage some upsets and prove that their qualification for next month's Africa Cup of Nations was not a fluke.
Add a guest appearance by the ever-improving Uganda and there are assurances this year's edition of the COSAFA Cup will be among the most explosive in the tournament's 22-year history.
Coming less than a month before AFCON 2019 in Egypt, this edition offers teams from the region a grand opportunity to test their readiness against Africa's best in Egypt - the Land of the Pyramids.
The Warriors of Zimbabwe will be favourites to add on to their six titles.
Three of Zimbabwe's titles have been won in South Africa plus the defending champions will be in familiar territory with most of its players plying their trade in the South African premiership.
The Zimbabweans have played the most matches (55), managed the most wins (33) and scored the most goals (99) to cement their place as the most successful side.
Long-time coach, Sunday "Mhofu" Chidzwamba, the most successful coach in the tournament with four titles, is still at the helm of the side.
His record-breakers resume duty at the quarterfinal stage at the Princess Magogo on June 1, against the winner of Group A, which features Angola, Comoros, eSwatini and Mauritius.
A good tournament will put them in good stead for AFCON, where they are pooled alongside hosts Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda in Group A.
Four-time winners South Africa are chasing their first COSAFA title since 2016.
Bafana Bafana entertain Botswana in the quarterfinals on June 2 also at the Princess Magogo.
The hosts are using the tournament to widen their selection pool in preparation for Egypt where they are alongside Ivory Coast, Morocco and Namibia in Group D.
Zambia, another four-time winner, only has the COSAFA Cup as their only hope for silverware this year. A wobbly qualification campaign meant Chipolopolo missed out on the second successive edition of the tournament they won in 2012.
Their last COSAFA title came a year later. Coach Aggrey Chiyangi's side are seeded and tackle the winner of Group B, consisting of Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Seychelles, on June 2 at Princess Magogo.
Three-time winners Angola have been a disappointment in recent editions, their last success coming in 2004. They are another side usitilising the tournament to prepare for their return to the AFCON. The Palancas Negras are in Group E alongside Mali, Mauritania and Tunisia.
Uganda are guest participants but are familiar with COSAFA tournaments having participated at the Women's Championship in South Africa last year and at Under-20 level in the men's competition.
The Cranes come with their tails up after qualifying for two successive AFCON tournaments, having waited 39 years to qualify for the 2017 edition.
Stand-in coach, Abdallah Mubiru, was upbeat ahead of the Durban assignment, which starts with a match against Lesotho' Crocodiles. His side is made up entirely of locally-based players, many from SC Villa, Vipers and Kampala City Council.
"My main target is to perform better in COSAFA by putting up good performances in the tournament, which will earn us respect as coaches, players and the nation at large," Mubiru told media.
The COSAFA tournament ends on June 8 at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.