Zambia coach Herve Renard has sparked his perennial mind games by claiming that he would be mocked for suggesting the Africa Cup of Nations title holders can hold on to their trophy in South Africa.
The dashing 44-year-old Frenchamn who defied the odds last year to guide the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) to glory in Gabon believes Ivory Coast and Ghana are the favourites.
“We cannot say we are the favourites – everybody would laugh if I said that. Ivory Coast and Ghana are the favourites,” he told a media conference after a training session in the north-eastern city of Nelspruit.
Renard says the Zambian build-up to the January 19-February 10 tournament has been better than last year, despite losses to Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Angola and draws with Morocco and Norway in warm-up games.
“I think we are better than last year when I was very concerned. All our warm-up games had been poor. But look what happened then – we had nothing to show for ourselves and we won the tournament.”
The Frenchman said he was unconcerned by the five-match winless streak ahead of the 2013 tournament, explaining that some fixtures were hastily arranged and used to experiment with players and tactics.
“We arranged the friendly against Angola at the last minute. We were staying in the same Johannesburg hotel and scheduled it just one day in advance,” said the native of French Alpine town Aix-les-Bains.
Zambia have no injury worries ahead of the first round clash with Ethiopia on January 21, but centre-back Stopilla Sunzu is in England hoping to finalise a move to English Premier League club Reading.
Another of the five French coaches at the 2013 Cup of Nations – Democratic Republic of Congo handler Claude le Roy – backs Renard in installing Ivory Coast and Ghana as favourites.
“There are three teams I see as the top favourites for the tournament – Algeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast. I do not think any other team can lift the trophy,” the 64-year-old veteran of six African Cup campaigns told reporters.
Le Roy guided Cameroon to two consecutive finals, losing a penalty shootout against hosts Egypt after the match finished 0-0 after extra-time and defeating Nigeria 1-0 in Casablanca two years later.
He downplayed the chances of the Leopards, who are back at the African football showpiece for the first time since losing to hosts and eventual champions Egypt in the 2006 quarter-finals.
“We are not one of the favourites for the competition – far from it. We consider ourselves outsiders who can create some surprises and possibly spoil the dreams of big teams.”
The Congolese are in Port Elizabeth-based Group B with 2012 bronze medallists Mali, four-time champions Ghana, and Niger, leaving some pundits to believe they could contradict their fourth-seed status and reach the knockout stages.
A clash between 1996 champions South Africa and debutants Cape Verde Islands Saturday before a sell-out 90,000 crowd at Soccer City stadium in Soweto gets the 22-day tournament under way.