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As the Afcon draws near, we begin examining the three teams that will form the group stage opposition for Stephen Keshi and his squad, beginning with the defending champions

Appearances at the Cup of Nations: 16 

1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013

Best ever performance: 2012

An inaugural Afcon victory in the emotional whirlpool of Libreville will be hard to top. Zambia overcame Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire in tense, against-all-odds, back-to-back victories, celebrating the memory of their fallen predecessors – the 1993 Zambia side that perished in a plane crash off the Libreville coast - in the process.

Famous moment in Afcon history

2012 was riddled with them, take your pick. Emmanuel Mayuka’s late winner against much-fancied Ghana, Gyan’s penalty miss in the semi, Drogba’s in the final, Renard’s aggressive chastising of Davis Nkausu, the boss’s compassion in carrying the crocked Joseph Musonda over to celebrate victory,  keeper Mweene’s theatrics, Kolo Touré and Gervinho fluffing their lines in Libreville, or perhaps even Stophira Sunzu’s final, emphatic, tournament-winning penalty.

Qualification

With the holders not facing automatic qualification, Zambia were thrown into the hat with everyone else, emerging with a tricky two legged tie against Uganda. Once again that famed resiliency and never-say-die attitude were evident in abundance as Chipolopolo overcame the agony of a Ugandan equaliser to eventually win the tie on penalties. Despite Christopher Katongo missing his opening spot kick, Renard’s men held their nerve and eventually prospered 9-8. Whilst their inability to overcome the Cranes more convincingly is a worry, their composure and nerve during the shootout will have encouraged fans.

The Team

Whilst Zambia do have a wonderful team ethic and a stunning desire to play for each other and promote the unit, this can often lead to observers overlooking their individual merits. BBC’s African player of the year Christopher Katongo is more than a mere skipper, Isaac Chansa and Rainford Kalaba offer energy and creativity in midfield, whilst Emmanuel Mayuka’s speed and athleticism will trouble most of the continent’s defences. Also look for the raiding surges of left-back Emmanuel Mbola, who needs to begin fulfilling his early promise. Sunzu and Sinkala are both competent, young defenders who are the future of the national team’s backline.

The Manager: Hervé Renard

An inspirational figure who has meshed humble man-management skills alongside acute tactic nous to turn a previously unsuccessful group of players into continental champions.

After an uninspired career in France’s lower leagues, a decade spent running his own cleaning business, and forgettable stints as a manager in various obscure outposts, Renard eventually found his niche, assisting Claude Le Roy in the management and organisation of African national sides. Eventually moving out of Le Roy’s shadow, Renard has discovered his spiritual home in Zambia, where, apart from a brief spell as Angola’s national boss, he has flourished since May 2008.        

Skipper: Christopher Katongo

The BBC’s African footballer of 2012 may well owe his honour to one famous night in Libreville, when his Chipolopolo stood firm in the face of an Ivoirian onslaught, but there are few more valuable qualities in football than influence and leadership. Katongo demonstrated both as his team overcame the odds to triumph in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

The China-based player, who made his name as a striker, may be past his prime, but he is still capable of contributing both goals and on-field organisation. He has flourished as Renard’s commander-in-chief, and will once again be the figurehead of Zambia’s Afcon assault, albeit from a more withdrawn midfield role.

Key Player: Rainford Kalaba

Whilst Mayuka, Katongo, and Mbola may be receiving the majority of the attention ahead of the 2013 Afcon, central midfielder Rainford Kalaba is a key player for the Chipolopolo. An impressive Afcon in 2012, where his goal against Senegal helped kick start Zambia’s triumphant campaign, saw the Kitwe-born midfielder recognised among the substitutes in the team of the tournament. A cruel penalty miss in the final shootout was, fortunately, not punished, and Kalaba went onto lift the trophy with as much relish (and relief) as anyone.

Despite failing to make his mark in Europe, with Braga, Kalaba has revived his career in the sub-Sahara in recent years, becoming the lynchpin and creative inspiration of the successful TP Mazembe side that has, at times, swept all before it. Now 26, he will be looking to have a major influence over this year’s centrepiece. Keeper Kennedy Mweene, a hero at the last Afcon, and midfielder Isaac Chansa, are also important players for the national side.

One to Watch: Emmanuel Mayuka

Named by Goal.com as Zambia’s ‘young talent’ a year ago, it’s hard to decide exactly how much progress Emmanuel Mayuka has made in the intervening 12 months. His qualities, incisive running and impressive athletic ability, still remain, but his move to Premier League Southampton is yet to truly bear fruit, with the forward unable to hold down a regular spot.

Still, time is on Mayuka’s side, and recently named – quite remarkably – by the Guardian among their top 100 players in the world, those in the know are predicting bright things for the former Young Boys striker. It remains to be seen whether Mayuka can repeat last year’s trick and retain the Afcon Golden Boot, but he is a frontman more than capable of devastating opposition backlines.

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