A howler by goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene condemned Zambia to an anxious finish before they beat Guinea-Bissau 2-1 Wednesday in a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Lusaka.
Shock 2012 champions Zambia should have been more than two goals ahead before a capacity 60,000 crowd at the National Heroes Stadium when Mweene blundered nine minutes from time.
The South Africa-based veteran hesitated over a back-pass instead of clearing it and the ball rebounded off Frederic Mendy into the net.
Guinea-Bissau, a bogey team for Zambia in the 2017 qualifiers, almost snatched an undeserved equaliser in stoppage time with a snap shot that was just too high.
The tiny west African nation took four points off Zambia in the last qualifying competition to eliminate the ‘Chipolopolo’ (Copper Bullets) and reach the finals for the first time.
Guinea-Bissau host the return match on Sunday with a chance to avenge this Group K defeat inflicted by goals from Stoppila Sunzu and Justin Shonga.
A corner manoeuvre led to Sunzu nodding Zambia in front on 17 minutes and a brilliant Clatous Chama pass sent Shonga clear to round goalkeeper Jonas Mendes and score.
Zambia wasted numerous chances to increase their advantage, notably when Musonda Lubambo blazed over from point-blank range.
“This is a match we had to win,” said Belgium-born Zambia coach Sven Vandenbroeck, making his home debut after a Cup of Nations draw in Namibia and a friendly win in Gabon.
He was assistant coach of surprise 2017 Cup of Nations champions Cameroon, working with head coach and compatriot Hugo Broos.
They were axed after the ‘Indomitable Lions’ subsequently disappointed in the FIFA Confederations Cup and failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Mozambique, who host Namibia on Friday, Zambia and Guinea-Bissau have four points each and the top two sides in the final standings go to the 2019 finals in Cameroon.
Earlier, Kenya forced a 0-0 Group J draw against Ethiopia in Bahir Dar to boost their chances of a first Cup of Nations appearance since 2004.
Kenya and Ethiopia have four points and Ghana and Sierra Leone remain on three after their fixture set for Kumasi on Thursday was cancelled.
Sierra Leone failed in a last-minute attempt to have a FIFA ban lifted over government interference in the running of the sport.
African body CAF announced the cancellation of the fixture, but did not say whether it could be rescheduled or if Sierra Leone faced disqualification.