With both considered outsiders – albeit in a relatively open group – Sunday’s clash in Ebebiyín, even at this early stage, is liable to represent a critical fixture in the quarter-final aspirations of Zambia and DR Congo.
A defeat in the group B curtain raiser would leave either side facing a mountainous climb. However, on the other side of the coin, victory would generate the momentum required to launch an assault on the last eight.
Question marks linger over both nations, with Zambia – the most emotional of champions back in 2012 – in a perceived state of transition whilst DR Congo continue to be plagued by exasperating inconsistency.
If DR Congo fully realise their offensive potential, as they did in momentously downing Ivory Coast in Abidjan during qualification, then it is difficult to see Zambia handling the Leopard’s vast array of attacking riches. The problem for DR Congo is that too often they have flattered to deceive in an attacking capacity, with such offensive off days exposing what is an error prone and vulnerable backline.
Crystal Palace’s Yannick Bolasie represents the jewel in DR Congo’s glittering attacking crown. If the mazy winger recreates the sparkling form showcased both throughout qualification and in recent Premier League outings, Zambia’s defensive quarters could endure the most torrid of afternoons.
Although Zambia have suffered a testing recent history, Honour Janza’s side will at least take to the field on Saturday in buoyant mood accounting that Chipolopolo tasted victory in their final three qualifiers – a return which saw Zambia successfully negotiate the genuine threat of missing only a second AFCON in 14 tournaments.
Despite that resurgence serious doubts remain regarding the goal threat of Janza’s side, given that they mustered just six goals in what was one qualification’s weaker groups – that tally being the joint lowest of any side to reach Equatorial Guinea.
Considering the high stakes involved, and that both sides will employ systems primarily revolving around the counterattack. there is a danger the two nations could cancel each other out. Both drew all three of their games at AFCON 2013 offering further evidence to support that a theory, although it should be highlighted that under the gaze of Florent Ibenge DR Congo have become somewhat of a more expressive group when compared against the side Claude le Roy took to South Africa.
DR Congo undoubtedly possess the required x-factor to open even the tightest of games, however that ability coming to fruition on Sunday is likely to be dictated by whether their schizophrenic attacking personality can be channelled in a positive manner.
An organised Chipolopolo side are unlikely to make it easy for the Leopards, with Zambia’s framework likely to reside around utilising a committed collective to frustrate DR Congo before potentially praying on an all too familiar Congolese defensive lapse.
It is difficult to gauge whether DR Congo have advanced enough since the last AFCON to avert falling into such a trap. Qualifying as the best third placed finisher would suggest the Central Africans are fortunate to even be here, nonetheless there are many who would argue that the Leopards qualification group was more daunting than their assignment in Equatorial Guinea.