After losing the first leg of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier 1-0 at Central African Republic, Burkina Faso were staring elimination in the face. With five minutes of second-half injury-time already on the clock, they were leading only 2-1, which would have seen the visitors through on the away goal rule. But when all seemed lost, rising young forward Alain Traore, who had earlier found the equaliser in the 18th minute, scored his second in the sixth minute of stoppage time for a 3-1 victory, which saw his side dramatically through 3-2 on aggregate.

The 23-year-old, who plays his club football in France for Lorient, revealed to his joy in that moment. "It was an intense emotion," he said. "Scoring was very important for me and the national team. After the 2012 Cup of Nations, we had been severely criticized. Our long-time coach, Paulo Duarte, was replaced, and things had been quite tangled for the Stallions. So qualifying again for the AFCON was a big relief for me and the team. I thought it could only help Burkina Faso's football gain serenity and stability."

Although the team failed to escape the group stages in 2010 and 2012 - drawing only once and losing four times - Traore is confident that the side can turn their fortunes around at the South African finals. He believes there are important differences between the team now and then. "There were lots of young players back in 2010. We all lacked experience. Year after year, we have acquired maturity and self-confidence. Most of us now play in good championships and most of us are starters in good clubs. It is quite new for the Stallions," he said.

The striker, whose younger brother Bertrand also plays for the national team, is confident that the squad will be competitive during the 19 January – 10 February tournament. "The Stallions have a great team spirit, they never give up on the field and they can count on some very skilled players." However, Traore says the team will also have to overcome some obstacles. "We will have to stand together one month, which is never easy."

A tough group to face
Even if Traore is confident that the team can do well, he is aware that it will not be an easy undertaking as Burkina Faso were drawn into a strong group, facing Nigeria, Ethiopia and the defending champions Zambia in Group C. "Nigeria is a major country in African football. It's been quite a long time since they have achieved great results, so we have to be cautious. I am sure they want to make up the lost time. Zambia is the 2012 champion. They caused a big surprise and are quite unpredictable. Ethiopia is quite unknown for us, but we know they did not qualify just by chance."

Traore said that the changeover from Duarte, who was replaced by Belgian coach Paul Put after the disappointment at the AFCON finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea earlier this year, had not been difficult. "When Paul Put was appointed coach of our national team, he decided to remain on Paulo Duarte's track. He did not change a lot of things in the team. The team remained the same, so did the tactics. We always play a 4-2-3-1, with only one centre forward. However, Duarte and Put do not have the same personality at all. Paulo Duarte used to talk a lot during the games, whereas Paul Put is quieter and prefers addressing his players in the changing room, during half-time."

The striker joined Auxerre from the Planete Champion football academy and stayed with the French club for seven seasons, before moving to Lorient after Auxerre were relegated. He has sometimes been called inconsistent, sometimes moving from great highs to periods of anonymity on the pitch. But it is a criticism he rejects. "It gets on my nerves. It is as if it was my fault each time Lorient does not win a game. Only two players can win a game 'on their own': Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. During the first games of this season, there was a lot of enthusiasm, every player wanted to earn his starting place. Afterwards, we might have lost a part of this enthusiasm. One positive thing is that we usually always scored at least one goal. This team has quality, just give us some time."