Hectic countdown for Zambia
Zambia face fellow qualifiers Angola on Saturday in the first of four warm-ups games before they defend the Africa Cup of Nations title won in Libreville last year.
Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets) will be on view again next Tuesday in the South African economic capital when they face Morocco, another country to have won the premier African football competition once.
The title holders, who shocked pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast in a goalless 2012 final settled by a penalty shootout, return home then for a January 12 fixture against Norway in central mining town Ndola.
A meeting with Namibia three days later in Nelspruit, the north-eastern South African city where Zambia play their three Group C first round games, completes a hectic schedule of four friendlies within 11 days.
France-born coach Herve Renard wants his team hyper sharp ahead of the opening pool game against Ethiopia, the 1962 champions who are back at the tournament after a 31-year absence.
"The first game against Ethiopia is very important – it is crucial to start the tournament well," Renard told reporters here. "Our aim is to finish first in the group."
Nigeria, shock absentees from the 2012 Cup of Nations, and Burkina Faso are the other Group C contenders with the Super Eagles and Chipolopolo expected to fill the top two places and reach the quarterfinals.
Tradition suggests an uphill battle for Zambia to keep the trophy and pocket another $1.5 milllion cheque as only Egypt (1959, 2008, 2010), Ghana (1965) and Cameroon (2002) have successfully defended the title.
Renard, a 44-year-old taskmaster in his second spell coaching Chipolopolo, says there is no pressure on his squad, from which three players must drop out by the midnight GMT deadline on January 9 for final 23-man squads.
"There is no pressure on us because no one outside Zambia expects us to win the competition again. People do not want to take risks with their predictions," he said.
"If we do not retain the title it simply means another team was better than us, but it will be very difficult to beat this team in South Africa, which is like a second 'home' for us."
Only two of the 2012 squad have not made the short list this time. Injury-prone defender Nyambe Mulenga lost form and midfielder Clifford Mulenga has been ignored since he was sent home from Gabon for ill discipline.