Traore, sandy pitch stand in Zambia’s way

Mukuka Mulenga

NELSPRUIT, South Africa (AP) — With all four teams in Group C having a chance to reach the African Cup of Nations quarterfinals, defending champion Zambia clearly has the most to lose as it tries to live up to its fans’ expectations.

Victory over Burkina Faso on Tuesday would see Zambia advance, while a draw would be enough if Nigeria and Ethiopia play to a lower-scoring stalemate in Rustenburg.

Burkina Faso leads the group with four points, while Zambia and Nigeria each have two and Ethiopia has one.

Zambia coach Herve Renard acknowledged that Zambia must deal with supporters’ hunger for success.

“It’s like when you are driving a Corolla for many years, and after we give you a Mercedes — you are not happy when you come back to the Corolla,” Renard said.

The champion must also contend with the tournament’s leading scorer in Burkina Faso’s Alain Traore, and will do so on a sandy surface that was criticized by Zambia captain Christopher Katongo.

“To be honest with you the pitch is not so good,” he said. “How can you play in the sand?”

Nevertheless, Renard pointed to Zambia’s recent record in the African Cup of Nations, which it unexpectedly won for the first time in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea last year.

“Zambia is unbeaten in eight games in the African Cup of Nations. I think there is only one team who can be above us at the moment and that’s Ivory Coast,” he said. “At the moment we are consistent. I didn’t tell you we are perfect, but we’re consistent. If we get qualification on Tuesday I think it will be another good performance for us.”

Although two-time tournament winner Nigeria will be under similar pressure on Tuesday, its task appeared a little easier after Ethiopia lost two key players.

Ethiopia coach Sewnet Bishaw confirmed Monday that midfielders Asrat Megersa and Adane Girma are unlikely to recover from the injuries they sustained in the first half of the team’s 4-0 loss to Burkina Faso.

“Two very important players were out and I’m afraid that they are not coming back,” Bishaw said. “Adane and Asrat are not in a good position right now. It will be up to the doctor’s decision before the match.”

While much of the attention will be on Zambia and Nigeria, it is Burkina Faso which holds a trump card in Lorient midfielder Traore as they look to reach the second round for the first time since hosting the competition in 1998.

Traore scored a late equalizer in Burkina Faso’s opening game against Nigeria, and then netted twice against Ethiopia.

“I’m very pleased that I’m the top scorer at the moment but it’s not my first objective – my first target is that the team can qualify,” he said. “Even if (captain Moumouni) Dagano is the top scorer and I can provide the assists, I’ll be very grateful.

“I’m still a young player and I have a long way to go, but I’m very pleased with the way things have gone.”