HARVE Renard may breathe a sigh of relief that his Zambian side did not suffer the embarrassing fate of falling on their sword in their first match of their Afcon soccer title defence.
Last night, Chipolopolo played to a 1-1 stalemate with the Walya Antelopes of Ethiopia at the Mbombela Stadium.
This became the fourth draw of the tournament in the five matches played up to the meeting between the two sides.
Renard, who has been under heavy criticism for failing to win a game in the buildup to the tournament, may be pleased with the result. However, questions still remain whether Chipolopolo can successfully defend their crown.
Ethiopia had contemplated an early downfall of the reigning continental champs. Evidence of this was the long convoy of vehicles on roads leading to Mbombela and the hoisting of Ethiopian flags by the traveling parties in each of the towns on the N4 – all the way into the Mpumalanga host city.
On the field, the Antelopes made their intentions clear as they attacked from the first whistle.
The more experienced and decorated Chipolopolo held their cool and let their adroit play do the talking. In the process, the Zambians were also faced with a hostile legion of Ethiopian supporters who outnumbered Chipolopolo support in the half-empty Nelspruit stadium. The Ethiopians piled on the early pressure in search of the opening goal without success.
The Walya Antelopes could not convert their best chance yet in the game in the 17th minute when striker Salahdin Said chipped the ball over Chipolopolo keeper Kennedy Mweene, but the side-foot chip bounced before the goalmouth and glided over the crossbar.
Mweene showed why he became one of the heroes in Chipolopolo's successful 2012 campaign when he saved a penalty from Said in the 23rd minute. This was after Zambian defender Chisamba Lungu fouled Said inside the box.
Tempers flared – not on the field but in the stands. The Ethiopian supporters became unruly as they launched missiles on to the field towards the Zambian side.
This followed the sending off of keeper Jemal Tasew who almost cut Lungu in half in a lunge with his studs up, and in the process causing self-inflicted injury as he was stretchered off the field in the 31st minute. Tasew was replaced by Zerihun Tadelle between the posts and Shemeles Bekele had to be substituted.
Zambia broke the deadlock with a Collins Mbesuma goal but Ethiopia replied in the 64th minute through substitute Addis Hintsa.
On Friday, Zambia take on Nigeria while Ethiopia face Burkina Faso.