Until the last round of matches in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the Chipolopolo of Zambia were almost out in the cold but victories home and way against the Desert Foxes of Algeria changed that dynamics. With the six points added to the one point they had before those games they now have 7 points and are back in contention – at least on paper for the lone ticket in Group B to Russia 2018.
The team standing between the Zambians and their first ever World Cup ticket is the Super Eagles of Nigeria. The Gernot Rohr tutored -side pumelled Cameroon 4-0 at the Nest of Champions in Uyo but the Indomitable Lions fought back tooth and nail to snatch a 1-1 draw at the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium, Yaounde to prevent Nigeria from becoming the first African country to book their ticket to next year’s world biggest soccer fiesta in Russia.
Since that upsurge against Algeria, the Zambians have been boasting that they are no longer pretenders but a real contender for the 2018 World Cup ticket with coach Wedson Nyirenda pontificating that what they did against Algeria away in Constatine, they can do against Nigeria in Uyo on October 7.
Now, let’s break it down. Nigeria and Zambia have two matches to go. The Super Eagles will host the Chipolopolo in Uyo and play against Algeria away in their last game. The Zambians on the other hand will host the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon at home in their own last game. The Algerians and the Cameroonians have nothing to play for, because regardless of the outcome of their games, the doors of Russia 2018 are firmly shut against them.
For Nigeria and Zambia, their two remaining matches are decisive. Therefore it needs not be said that the most important game in the qualifying series is now the Super Eagles vs the Chipolopolo at the Nest of Champions in Uyo on October 7. Victory for Nigeria in that match will seal their passage to Russia and conversely put paid to Zambia’s aspiration of booking a ticket to their first World Cup ever.
A draw however will elongate the waiting game, meaning the two countries would have to wait for the final game of the series to determine who makes it. Of course, an unlikely win for Zambia in Uyo will take them to ten points with Nigeria and re-energise their hopes ahead of their last home game against Cameroon.
The Super Eagles have come a long way in this campaign. From their matchday one 2-1 victory against the same Zambians away in Ndola, the 3-1 decimation of Algeria in Uyo and the blockbusters against arch rivals, Cameroon home and away with the team coming out unscathed winning 4-0 at home and the Lions snatching a face saving 1-1 draw in Yaounde, I believe the Mikel John Obi-captained side are on the march to Russia.
This is not to say that the Super Eagles should take their foot off the pedal. It is also not to say that the job is already done. I’m also not saying that the battle against the Chipolopolo will be a stroll in the park. I agree that the Zambians will give the Eagles a good run for their money but I do not subscribe to the argument in some quarters that the Chipolopolo are better than the Super Eagles because of their resurgence against Algeria.
There is no denying the fact the Super Eagles are by far the best team in their qualifying group and should confidently approach the match against Zambia. Note my words, confidently because we should not be over confident and count our chicks before they are hatched.
We defeated the Zambians right in their backyards in Ndola and the Chipolopolo should not pose a threat to us in Uyo.
My position is that the next game is usually the toughest, and this one against Zambia is the most important. Victory will confirm our place in Russia and we can thereafter roll out the drums to celebrate that our flag will be hoisted among big football nations at the world biggest soccer fiesta in the country of Wladimir Putin . Until then, they must put in their hard work and ensure nothing goes wrong on October 7 at Nest of Champions.
I do not think we have any reason to panic. The Super Eagles have demonstrated that they can rise to the occasion when the chips are down – like they did against the reigning African champions, the dreaded Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. They recovered from the home loss against the Bafana Bafana of South Africa with an emphatic victory against Cameroon. Like it is said, inner strength is not in never falling at all but rising any time we fall.
I do not want to bore you with head to head record between Nigeria and Zambia but would rather talk about the most important football match the two countries have ever played – the grand finale of the 1994 African Cup of Nations in Tunis.
I still remember and very vividly too, that the build up to that game was frenetic. If football was about emotion, the Kalusha Bwalya – inspired Zambians would have beaten the Super Eagles black and blue. They enjoyed a lot of support owing to the tragedy that befell their team barely a year before the tournament – the horrific plane crash that claimed majority of their players. The air disaster occurred in the late evening of 27 April 1993 when a Zambian Air Force de Havilland Canada DHC-5D Buffalo crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 500 metres (550 yards) offshore from Libreville, Gabon.
But the Clemence Westerhof – tutored Super Eagles defied the odds, rode against the emotional tide to win the match and lift their second African Cup of Nations trophy.
Not particularly an extra-ordinary grand finale, the Zambians fought bravely from to start to finish and gave their all but the star – studded Super Eagles were in a class of their own and did just enough to emerge victorious with the pacy and fleet footed Emmanuel Amunike grabbing a brace to settle the contest.
Now the battle line is drawn, the stage is set, the Zambians are coming to town and like they did against Nigeria in 1994, they will fight from the beginning to the end, they will give their all but I beleive the Super Eagles are superior and like in 1994 will send the Chipolopolo back empty handed and qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
The Super Eagles have fought and won tougher battles in this series and my take is that the ‘bullets’ of the Zambia will not bring Nigeria down.
‘No weapon formed against the Super Eagles of Nigeria shall prosper!’
By Akinyemi Fagbolagun