Cosafa Cup hosts Zambia and titleholders Zimbabwe are favoured to win the semifinals tomorrow in the mining city of Ndola.
Zimbabwe confront giantkillers Lesotho in the first half of a southern Africa championship double-header at the 45 000-seat Levy Mwanawasa Stadium.
This repeat of the 2000 final, won convincingly by Zimbabwe, is followed by the main attraction between former African champions Zambia and South Africa.
Zimbabwe have won a regional competition staged in various formats a record four times and South Africa and Zambia three times each.
Both Zambia and Zimbabwe admit they are feeling the pressure as they seek to set up consecutive Cosafa Cup finals between the same teams for the first time.
Hosts Zimbabwe defeated Zambia 3-1 in the 2009 final before a sponsorship withdrawal forced the cancellation of the next three editions.
France-born Zambia coach Hervé Renard says it would be “unthinkable” for the Chipolopolo not to overcome Bafana Bafana tomorrow.
“This is a very important tournament for Zambia and we need to win it as hosts,” he told reporters.
“We have a team capable of going all the way, but the most important thing now is to concentrate on reaching the final.”
Zambia were one of six seeded sides to receive byes into the knockout stage and a great start against Mozambique set up a convincing 3-1 triumph.
Striker Bornwell Mwape converted a penalty and defender Jimmy Chisenga saw his cross land in the net to put the home team in control by the half-hour mark.
Teenage substitute striker Moses Phiri added a third goal 12 minutes from time before a bicycle kick produced a flattering scoreline for Mozambique.
Fellow seeds South Africa started with a satisfying 2-1 win over Namibia, a country who have twice eliminated their much stronger neighbours from the Cup.
Particularly pleasing for Bafana coach Gordon Igesund was a shoot-on-sight policy that delivered great goals from Jabulani Shongwe and Hlompho Kekana.
Igesund lost 10 of his original 20-man squad to clubs preparing for the new domestic season, including five stars from champions Kaizer Chiefs.
“Many of my players are new to the national team system and we cannot get everything right in just a few days,” admitted the coach.
“But I have confidence in them as they are talented footballers and this Cup offers them a chance to stake claims for inclusion in future squads.”
Zimbabwe and Lesotho went through nerve-tingling penalty shoot-outs to secure last-four places after 1-1 draws with Malawi and Angola respectively.
Klaus-Dieter Pagels returns to Europe as soon as his contract with Zimbabwe expires and the influence of the German was evident in the opening half against Malawi.
The Warriors retained possession for long periods through short passing and good off-the-ball movement, and should have led by more than one goal at half-time.
But they failed to maintain control despite Malawi having a player sent off and a howler from goalkeeper Maxwell Nyamupangedengu gifted a late equaliser.
“There is pressure because every team wants to beat us,” conceded playmaker Ronald Chitiyo. “But I am confident we can successfully defend the title.”
Zimbabwe have never won successive Cosafa Cup championships – a feat achieved by Zambia (1997-1998) and South Africa (2007-2008).
Lesotho reached the quarterfinals by topping a four-team mini-league on goal difference ahead of more fancied Kenya and Botswana.
And they have a challenger for the leading scorer prize in three-goal striker Thapelo Tale, who has struck one less than Jerome Ramatlhakwane of Botswana.
However, Tale would be the first to admit that teamwork and doggedness rather than individual brilliance has got the Crocodiles within sight of the final.
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