Zambia derailed highrollers Gabon 2-1 on Thursday to qualify for the Orange Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals for the first time in 14 years.
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Goals in either half from Rainford Kalaba and the Chinese-based James Chamanga earned Herve Renard’s side, who went into the game footing Group D, a place in the quarterfinals along with Cameroon, who drew 2-2 with Tunisia over in Lubango.
Zambia’s reward for topping the table was a last eight match up with Group C runners-up Nigeria.
Renard said: “When we came to Angola we said we will qualify for the quarterfinals but people were laughing at us. Against Nigeria, our target is to reach the semifinal.”
Zambia skipper Chris Katongo added: “It’s a great moment for me as a captain to reach the knockout stage of the Nations Cup. We have achieved something, broken the barrier, which a lot of people thought was impossible.”
Katonga’s Gabon counterpart Daniel Cousin cut a sad figure.
“We thought we had qualified but after a short while, we received the news that we did not qualify,” he said.
“We started well against Cameroon (in their first match), but whatever happened, happened.”
Zambia burst out of the blocks in Benguela as befitted a team that needed the three points to escape the clutches of Group D — whereas Gabon required just a solitary point.
On 11 minutes Zambia had their first major opportunity, after a neat move involving Felix Katongo and Jacob Mulenga, only for the Utrecht striker to shoot high over.
The Gabon defence was under pressure for the first real time in the tournament as Zambia maintained their energetic start.
By far the more menacing of the two sides, Zambia’s South Africa-based Felix Katongo, the captain’s brother, squandered another gilt-edged opportunity when he scuffed the ball from in front of goal.
Zambia took a deserved lead in the 28th minute when defender Kampamba slid the ball upfield to Kalaba and the Uniao Leiria midfielder kept his cool to knock the ball from the left of the box past the onrushing Gabon keeper Ebang Ovono.
That was the first goal Gabon conceded since arriving in Angola.
At the break, with Tunisia leading Cameroon 1-0 in Lubango, it was the Tunisians and Zambia who were set to march on.
However, with Cameroon levelling shortly after the break that put them in a three-way tie with Zambia and Gabon on four points, with Gabon the ones to miss out.
Zambia, twice Africa Cup of Nations runners-up, emerged for the second half intent on killing off the tie.
Lax defending led to Zambia’s second goal, with Mulenga fighting off Gabon defender Moise Brou to cross the ball from the near post to the waiting Chamanga, with the forward tapping into an open goal.
Zambia had to survive a nerve tingling final eight minutes after Gabon got back into the match when Hull City striker Cousin floated in a high ball from the left flank for substitute Fabrice do Marcolino to shoot past Ovono.
Zambia will be without the services of suspended Chintu Kampamba for the quarterfinals after the defender picked up his second booking of the competition.