African Cup of Nations: Zambia could frustrate Nigeria in must-win game

Herve Renard's Zambia could frustrate Nigeria
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Jonathan Wilson casts his expert eye over a tight Group C featuring Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Zambia.

"Zambia had an extraordinary 18 shots off target in their draw against Ethiopia, suggesting there is little wrong with their chance creation."

One game gone and Group C is exactly level, everybody on one point having scored one goal. Ethiopia came back with 10 men to draw with Zambia, while Burkina Faso struck in the last minute to deny Nigeria victory. Had the two favourites to progress both won, Friday's game between Zambia and Nigeria could easily have become a draw of convenience; as it is there is tension and anxiety and it has become a game that neither side can afford to lose.

The Super Eagles, physical and cussed, remain favourites to progress from the group but at [2.0] it must be worth considering laying them.

Zambia are second favourites at [3.0] with Burkina Faso [4.5] and Ethiopia [8.0]. Nigeria are prone to panic and self-destruction - partly because, like England, they are tormented by the twin evils of expectant entitlement and a sense of the inevitability of their own demise. One in six Africans is Nigerian, they have produced as many top-class players as any other African nation and yet they have won the Cup of Nations only twice - half as often as the Egypt midfielder Ahmed Hassan.

In Stephen Keshi, though, they have a manager of admirable single-mindedness and determination. When Alain Traore scored the last-minute equaliser, Mikel John Obi looked distraught, and stormed off the pitch at the final whistle. On the bench, though, Keshi barely flinched, a single bead of sweat oozing down his face. "I'm not going to blow their head off for this game, this game is gone," he said.

"The next game is very, very important against Zambia. I will take my time to psych them up and bring them back to the best of their ability. We still have a wide chance of progressing into the next stage of the competition."

That's true, but the worry for Nigerian fans is that the way they played felt very familiar. The Nigeria side of the nineties, the team that won the Cup of Nations in 1994 and Olympic gold two years later, was physical but also technically gifted; over the last decade, Nigeria have become increasingly crabby, relying on their robustness and long forward passes. Superb as Brown Ideye's touch to Emmanuel Emenike was for Nigeria's goal, it stemmed from a simple forward pass from Mikel.

Victor Moses, who might have added a dash of flair, missed the opening game because of a hamstring strain picked up in Nigeria's pre-tournament training camp in Faro, Portugal. "I wouldn't want to look stupid by introducing Moses into the game and withdrawing him after a few minutes, but we hope he gets better for our next group game against Zambia," Keshi said.

Zambia's performance was hard to deconstruct. They had an extraordinary 18 shots off target in their draw against Ethiopia, suggesting there is little wrong with their chance creation, but the worry must be a defence in which Hijani Himoonde looked particularly shaky. Only a preposterous bounce, carrying the ball over an open goal denied Saladin Seid an opening goal and Kennedy Mweene saved a penalty while it was still 11 against 11.

In 12 games since winning the Cup of Nations, Zambia have scored five goals and conceded 10 and, while Nigeria have shown a capacity for goalscoring having got on top - notably in putting six past Liberia in Calabar - they are far from prolific. Zambia held Nigeria to a goalless draw in the quarter-final in 2010 before losing on penalties and another low-scoring game seems likely.

The question really is whether Zambia, when faced with one of the giants of the African game - however misfiring - can rediscover the organisation and self-restraint that carried them to success a year ago. Seeing how Nigeria buckled after the dismissal of Efe Ambrose, it's clear they are vulnerable but then Zambia have lost five of the last six games in which they've fallen behind.

RECOMMENDED BET: If Nigeria get an early goal on Friday (25th), it's not impossible they could win with great ease, but if they don't, then it's easy to imagine them getting frustrated. Splitting the stake between 0-0 [8.0] and 1-0 to Zambia [6.0] seems logical.

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