Zambia coach Hervé Renard last night accepted full responsibility for his team’s lacklustre start to the Africa Cup of Nations.
The defending champions drew 1-1 with an Ethiopia side that was making its first appearance in the finals for 31 years.
Zambia led at the pause after Ethiopia were reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of goalkeeper Tasew Jemal for a crude challenge outside the box on Isaac Chisamba.
They couldn’t build on that and were pegged back 20 minutes from time. Ethiopia skipper Girma Adane finished emphatically past Kennedy Mweene after being played through by Salahdin Said who’d earlier missed a penalty when it was still goalless.
“I spoke so many times about Ethiopia and we saw in our match exactly what I’d been telling my players," Renard said. "The Ethiopians played like they were at home. My players were aware of their quality and their short passing game.
“That was not a surprise. What I am surprised about is that Zambia was not at that level. Was it because of Ethiopia or was it because of Zambia? We have to find the answer.
“Obviously it wasn’t the result we wanted. When you begin the Africa Cup of Nations you have to be sure your team is ready to start and get the three points in the first game, more so when you are champions. There’s lots of expectation around and you have to prepare your team. I don’t think I did my job well.”
During the game at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, the Ethiopian front line looked more dangerous. Stoppila Sunzu, fresh from his trials with English Premier League outfit Reading, had to be constantly alert in the Zambian defence to master the threat posed by Said.
In attack Collins Mbesuma’s burly athleticism didn’t appear to create as much havoc. And it was only with the arrival of Emmanuel Mayuka that Zambia appeared more incisive.
Zambia skipper Christopher Katongo refused to let his coach take the brunt of the blame.
“I have to take responsibility too,” he said. “As a captain I have to organise my boys to do more on the field. What’s important is to learn.”
At the end of the game the Ethiopian bench was a horde of hugs and handshakes. Theirs was a stalemate forged in such adversity that the 1-1 was greeted as a victory.
And assistant coach Seyoum Kebede was quick to extol his side’s resilience.
“For our first game at the Africa Cup of Nations in 31 years to get this result is very good," he said. "A missed penalty, a goal and a man down against the defending champions, to come back from that it was a good performance. It was something very special.”
In the days preceding the match against Burkina Faso, head coach Sewnet Bishaw has to ensure his players remain aware that they only drew. But Kebede says Bishaw’s task should be easier because there’s more knowledge in the team.
“This year we’ve had qualifiers for the World Cup next year in Brazil," he recalls. "There’ve also been the qualifiers to get to this tournament. This is why our national team is better. They are experiencing good things.”
With the other Group C match between Nigeria and Burkina Faso ending in a draw, the second round of games on Friday will be crucial.
Then it will be the gnash of the underdogs as Burkina Faso play Ethiopia. The wounded giants will square up in the other game. What price for another set of draws?