Zambia’s talisman and captain is the lively and fiery Chris Katongo, who has been the player of the tournament thus far, making a vital difference in each game he has played; a glorious through-ball when playing as an attacking midfielder to punish Senegal’s lottery high-line, a key header to equalise against Libya in difficult wet conditions and a wonderful solo effort against Equatorial Guinea; a low shot after cutting inside horizontally from the left.
Equally as impressive as Katongo is Rainford Kalaba – a dazzling, twinkle-toed left-winger who has left several full-backs (I say “full-backs” because he often changes wings during the games with whoever is playing on the right wing) with twisted blood at this year’s Cup of Nations. Arguably as impressive as those two has been 21-year-old Emmanuel Mayuka, who has shown increasing signs of being Zambia’s biggest star since Kalusha Bwalya. Enjoying a good season with Young Boys in Switzerland with 7 goals in 16 outings, Mayuka has shown maturity in his finishing – with the ball lofting over his head, he showed good technique to guide the ball into the bottom corner to level the score against Libya. The best piece of skill so far in the tournament, though, has come from Isaac Chansa; with his back to goal, he chested a cross from the left-wing before expertly executing an overhead kick-cum-cross, which found the head of Katongo to score.
Variation of systems used
Besides the impressive triumvirate, one of the most impressing factors so far has been the variety of the systems used. In the wet, splashy 2-2 draw against Libya, Renard began with the 4-2-3-1 system used in the 2-1 victory over Senegal but later changed it to a 4-4-2, akin to a 4-2-4 with its thrusting, attacking wingers. Renard is happy to chop and change during games –he took midfielder Francis Kasonde off for striker Collins Mbesuma after 30 minutes in that Libya game, only for the substitute to later be substituted because he wanted players to ‘play faster’, deeming Mbesuma not to be compatible with that style of play.
Interestingly, the 4-2-4 with wide players positioned very high, almost a 4-2-4, was deployed again in the 1-0 victory over co-hosts Equatorial Guinea . Particularly noteworthy was Chisamba Lungu, a player who had played at right-back for the first two games, being deployed as a right-winger. He’s not placing them randomly, many of these players are actually versatile; Chansa has been used on the right wing and in the centre of the midfield; Francis Kasonde has been used at right-back and as a holding midfielder; the attacking triumvirate of Mayuka, Kalaba and Katongo are constantly interchanging positions.
Cohesion as a unit and introduction of youngsters
In an increasingly globalised football game where players come from different footballing upbringings, international sides can look more incoherent than ever, yet Zambia have looked coherent and well-balanced as a unit. That isn’t because they have a lot of domestic-based players – like, say, the victorious Egypt teams of 2006-2010 – but because they have established a right balance of experience and youth, the majority of whom are African-based, who have played with each other for a considerable amount of time. Indeed, seven of the current took part in the 2006 Cup of Nations and over half in 2008.
Despite that, Renard was wary at the state of his squad pre-tournament, claiming some the squad had become ‘too comfortable’. As a result, there is a youthful presence in the squad to keep the senior players on their toes. Emmanuel Mayuka, despite only being 21, has been around for the best part 5 years and impressed at the U-20 World Cup in 2007 before featuring in the squads of the 2008 and 2010 editions of the Cup of Nations. Another who was part of that U-20 World Cup squad was centre-back Stopila Sunzu – an uncompromising stopper, the clue is in his name, who can also play as a midfielder (another versatile one). The versatile tone continues with Nathan Sinkala, a 20-year who plays as a defender at club level but has been thriving in the centre of midfield in this tournament.
Playing without fear
A much-documented idiosyncrasy of Renard is his emphasis on physical preparation. Such is his insistence on the physical aspects of the game that many are unconvinced by his credentials as a coach, regarding him as a physical trainer instead. Pre-tournament, Zambia completed a 6-week fitness regime, the type which several club sides undertake during pre-season as he deemed the players not fit enough after taking over for his second tenure (his predecessor, Dario Bonetti, was sacked two days after qualifying for the Cup of Nations). The implication of this physical approach is it allows the Chipolopolo to play an intense pressing game or ‘get in the faces’ of their opponents, so to speak. The pressing isn’t done throughout the game – against Equatorial Guinea and Senegal they were happy to sit back and conserve energy once they had taken the lead and hit the teams on the counter-attack.
Although most of their players ply their trade in Africa, this knockout stage, considering the nations not at the tournament, should be workaday to most of them – they have qualified for four consecutive Cup of Nations and have reached the quarter-finals for two consecutive times. They shouldn’t be overawed and with the tragic 1993 Zambia national football team air disaster, which happened offshore near Libreville in Gabon, lurking in the back of their minds they have added motivation to make it to the semi-final in Libreville.