Uganda’s hopes of qualifying for the quarterfinals are dangerously on the edge after defeat to Zambia.
CHAN 2016: Group D
Uganda 0 Zambia 1 (Katongo 41')
Uganda’s hopes of making it to the knock-out stage of the Africa Nations Championship (CHAN) are now slim – and fragile – after suffering defeat to Zambia on Saturday.
Captain Christopher Katongo’s fierce header four minutes to the break put the Chipolopolo in front inside a buoyant Umuganda Stadium.
Adrian Chama should have made it two late in the second half after nifty solo work but, after beating goalkeeper Mathias Kigonya, he wasted too much time on the ball and saw nothing come out of his well-worked effort.
And he will have been relieved that his profligacy did not cost his side a vital win as the Zambians held on to safely see out a less entertaining but end-to-end second half.
So with two wins in two games, Zambia are now safely through to the quarterfinals – with one group tie against Mali to spare.
Earlier in the day, The Eagles beat Zimbabwe 1-0 to climb to the top of Group D, but now settle into second place (four points) after leaders Zambia’s win. Uganda, with one point in two games, are in third while Zimbabwe, with no point, sit at the bottom.
While the Chipolopolo were marshalled on by their experienced captain Katongo, Coach Mulitin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic's side lacked the inspiration so often provided by their absent skipper Farouk Miya who sat out the game due to injury.
His responsibilities were assumed by left-back Joseph Ochaya, who despite proving to be a solid force on the flank, couldn't steer his men past the Zambians.
In the build-up to the tie, Micho called for "character" from his players in the absence of Miya and first-choice goalkeeper Ismail Watenga (groin injury).
And a lively start against the Chipolopolo on synthetic turf under floodlights provided evidence that The Cranes had absorbed well their Serbian tactician's message.
The best opportunity of the opening half fell early to forward Erisa Ssekisambu but the right winger blasted wide. Moments later, on the other end of goal, Christopher Muntari got on the end of a wonderfully taken set-piece, but his resultant effort was safely collected by Kigonya.
A quarter-an-hour into the first half, the Zambians were a much brighter outfit, and should have taken the lead in the 16th minute but Katongo' chip over Kigonya after a lovely run-in was volleyed off the line by KCCA FC defender Dennis Okot.
From then on, it was end-to-end action as both sets of fans rallied their sides on for an opener.
The Ugandans, playing a side that frustrated their progression to the 2013 Africa Nations Cup finals in a dramatic shoot-out at Namboole in Kampala, relished good ball control but were undone by ineffectiveness in the attack.
Striker Robert Ssentongo faced defenders more superior in height and often failed to make through-runs. Again, this is where the services of Miya will have been missed. The budding player, who has secured a move to Belgian giants Standard Liege, scored after making an assist in the opening game against Mali.
Meanwhile, the Chipolopolo took advantage of their fast-paced attackers, Adrian Chama down on the left and Isaac Chansa on the right flank. In the 23rd minute, Chama made a dashing break, leaving defender Bernard Muwanga for dead, but his effort went to such waste that, on another day, it should have gone in.
Thirty minutes into the game, Ochaya sent in a rasping goal-bound freekick that required alert keeper Jacob Banda's intervention.
Seven minutes to half-time, Zambia's coach George Lwandamina had to bring on Benson Sakala in place of Salulani Phiri who got injured during a corner kick aerial challenge, and had to be stretchered off for medical attention.
A little earlier before that substitution, Zambia almost drew first blood when 17-year-old Patson Daka dashed down left, beat Okot into the box, intercepted a pass from the edge, but a resulting scramble saw Chansa’s effort blocked out of danger.
Then came the dreaded moment for The Cranes: With less than five minutes left to the break, Chama steadied himself for a freekick. His in-swinger dropped to skipper Katongo who nodded past Kigonya, and despite clashing dangerously with the Ugandan goal-stopper midair, the veteran captain still had the stamina to celebrate his goal in dramatic fashion with a series of back-flips and military-like salutations with his teammates on the fringes.
Coming into the second half, Micho introduced Frank Kalanda in place of Ssentongo in the hope of injecting more venom up-front. And to replenish his midfield, the Serbian brought on Martin Kizza for an exhausted Ivan Ntege.
It was a less lively second half, but one that did not lack opportinities. Timothy Awany almost found the equalizer in the 66th minute from a wonderfully taken Muzamiru Mutyaba cross but he sliced it agonizingly off target. That should have been the leveler.
With 20 minutes left on referee Zio Ephrem Juste's watch, both sides made some changes: Lukyanga Conylde, aged 18, came on for fellow teenager Daka while in the Ugandan camp, Mutyaba made way for Lweza FC forward Geoffrey Sserunkuuma.
Sserunkuuma, who was benched in the Mali game, almost had his moment of brilliance but his effort late on whistled over the bar.
Zambia are now through and despite defeat, Uganda are still in it. They have the second qualification spot to battle for with Mali. Should Mali lose against Zambia and Uganda beat Zimbabwe on Wednesday in their last group game, the side with a better goal difference progresses (since both sides will be tied on four points).
But a draw for The Eagles will see them advance, despite any Uganda v Zimbabwe result.
So, Ugandans are back in that all too familiar position . . . of Mathematics!