Nigeria and Zambia face off in the second round of Group B fixtures in the 2018 African Women Cup of Nations (AWCON) at Cape Coast Sports Stadium on Wednesday, 21 November off the back of contrasting but historic results in their respective opening matches.
While the Super Falcons were lethargic and disjointed in a disappointing but unsurprising loss to South Africa, Shepolopolo were effervescent and relentless as they recorded a first ever win at the AWCON by demolishing two time champions Equatorial Guinea by five unanswered goals to assume control of the group. That opening fixture loss to South Africa now leaves the Falcons facing the unthinkable but very real prospect of an ignominious group exit if they suffer consecutive group stage losses for the first time in their history.
Wednesday’s match is a repeat of the clash between these two sides in the group stage of the 2014 AWCON in Namibia where the Shepolopolo were routed in a six nil defeat – their biggest ever loss – with the Falcons’ goals coming from Ngozi Okobi, Osinachi Ohale, Desire Oparanozie, Asisat Oshoala and Perpetua Nkwocha. Incidentally, with the exception of Nkwocha, all the goal scorers are part of the Falcons’ squad in the 2018 championships while five players from that Zambian squad are in Ghana.
The Falcons have no injury worries after captain Rita Chikwelu declared herself fit after going off with cramps in the game against South Africa. Zambia captain and star player Barbara Banda faces a late fitness test before the game after she picked up a slight injury in training on Monday. The Spain based midfielder is yet to make an appearance in the tournament after a suspension ruled her out of the opening game against Equatorial Guinea.
After experimenting with Rasheedat Ajibade who made her Super Falcons debut against South Africa, Falcons coach Thomas Dennerby is likely to revert to the tried and trusted for this must win game with the experienced Ngozi Okobi likely to be given the task of bringing balance and control to the Falcons’ midfield in place of Ajibade. Bruce Mwape should maintain the starting eleven that so mercilessly put Equatorial Guinea to the sword although a fit Barbra Banda should make the team from the start.
Nigeria’s loss to South Africa was the first time they would be losing an opening game at the AWCON and while the defeat to Banyana Banyana wasn’t entirely surprising, the manner of it has led to calls in some quarters back home that Dennerby be relieved of his job regardless of the outcome of the Falcons’ tournament.
A loss to Zambia would see those calls reach deafening levels and all but make his position untenable. With both the coach and players under pressure to deliver against Zambia on Wednesday, Dennerby says his experience having “been in this business for so many years” would help him guide his players through this tricky spell and ensure they “keep on rocking”. The Swede, however, concedes that his team has to pass the ball better than they managed against South Africa.
“If I should take one very important thing [from the game against South Africa], it is the decision making in our passing play,” he says.
“Sometimes we were a little bit slow in our decision making and we need to speed up the pace and if we take quicker decisions [it gives us more options] options and [it becomes] easier for players that will receive the ball to read what’s going to happen if we have quicker decision making.”
The Falcons decision making will be severely tested against a young and vibrant Zambia who with an average age of just over 20-years, boast the youngest squad in the entire tournament with pace and energy in the forward areas that may prove problematic for the Falcons backline as it was for Equatorial Guinea.
South Africa also successfully exploited the limited mobility of the Falcons’ defence by targeting the 35-year old Onome Ebi at centre-back and 31-year old Faith Ikidi at right back with pace down the channels and long balls over the top for their forwards to run on to.
It is a tactic likely to be deployed by the Zambians when they take on Nigeria and while Dennerby concedes that the “very skilful” Mary Mwakapila and Racheal Kundananji who both scored against Equatorial Guinea have the capacity to hurt his side, he maintains that his “stronger team” can “handle the good attackers that they have in Zambia” provided the entire team defends as a unit.
“We have good defenders in our team and I think that we are professional and experienced and can handle [Zambia’s attack],” the Swede said.
“But it’s not only about the defenders because if the midfielders do a bad work – not pressing not helping the defenders – even an old man like I can play in the midfield and do some crucial passes. But if we put our opponents under pressure when they are building up play and trying to play the crucial passes we will also support our defenders to have time to get into the right positions to [defend]. It’s all about the team.”
Having guided his team to a first ever AWCON victory in very spectacular fashion, Zambia coach Bruce Mwape says his team “will not underrate” ten time champions and pretournament favourites Nigeria when they meet in what he says is a “fifty-fifty affair”. Mwape says Zambia may “need to change our tactics” against a Nigeria still smarting from defeat to South Africa and that while the Shepolopolo aren’t getting carried away by their five nil drubbing of Equatorial Guinea, they are well prepared to take on the Falcons.
“For me,” he says, “[the 5-0 defeat of Equatorial Guinea] is now history its water under the bridge our focus is on the game against Nigeria. Nigeria is quite a strong team that much we know and [after] losing to South Africa they will want to concentrate on our game [on Wednesday] and I’m sure they are planning to get the three points but as far as we are concerned we are also ready for the game against Nigeria.”
At stake for both teams is a chance to qualify for the semi-finals and with it the possibility of securing qualification to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. While Zambia have never made it past the group stages of this competition not to talk of qualifying for the World Cup, the Falcons are the only African team to have qualified for all seven editions of the Mundial since 1991.
Victory for Zambia would all but secure their place in the semi-finals for the very first time while for the Falcons – ten times winners of this tournament – a defeat that sends them packing out of the group stages will reverberate throughout the continent and the consequences will surely be cataclysmic.
Dennerby believes it is at times like this that champions must prove their mettle and show their worth.
“We must come together and handle situations like this,” he says, “big teams used to do that and if we really are a big team we will show that today in the game.”