A lot has changed since the national team of Zambia, nicknamed the Chipolopolo, lost at home to their host on Saturday, the Super Eagles of Nigeria in the opening game of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.
Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho were the scorers for Nigeria that day, as they conquered Zambia 2-1 in Ndola, with 33-year-old Collins Mbesuma scoring the consolation for the Copper Bullets.
However, a draw and two wins later, the Zambians have renewed hope of making the 2018 party in Russia, and are now the only thing standing between Nigeria and a sixth appearance at FIFA’s flagship tournament, the World Cup. So, what has changed?
The coach, Wedson Nyirenda went back to the drawing board, and decided to reinvigorate his team, injecting new blood, with young players like Emmanuel Banda, Enock Mwepu, Patson Daka, Fashion Sakala amongst others.
Now, these players were all part of the Zambian u20 side which narrowly lost to Italy in an exciting quarter-final clash, which went into extra time, at the FIFA u20 championship in South Korea.
This singular move proved an inspired one, as Zambia would recover from a poor start to the 2018 World Cup qualifying series, which saw them pick just a point from a possible six, to beat Algeria back-to-back.
Mwepu and Daka were instrumental in both wins, as was Platinum Stars striker, Brian Mwila, who scored twice in a 3-1 win against the Algerian in Lusaka.
That’s not all, Nyirenda’s action also reduced the average age of the Zambia side drastically.
In that loss to Nigeria at the Ndola stadium, Zambia paraded a team with an average age of 29.1, with the starting eleven having an average age of 28.6.
But when the Zambians touched down in Nigeria, the team they arrived with will have an average age of 24, led by 18-year-old Daka and Mwepu,20, two players who scored in their wins against Algeria.
Also, when the Zambians step out on the pitch of the Nest of Champions, Uyo, their starting eleven will be 7.6 years younger than the side which started in the loss in Ndola.
It’s a different Zambian side, full of youths, and belief, especially as they arrive hoping to put an end to a run that has seen them fail to beat Nigeria in the last 20 years.
So, Nigeria has to be careful on Saturday, if we are to tame the rambunctiousness of the Zambians, especially their attack, which will be led by Daka and another youngster, Justin Shonga, the 20-year-old Orlando Pirates star.