A last-four place was the bottom line set by French coach Herve Renard for the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) when given control of the national squad a second time last October.
They began the latest edition of the biennial African football showpiece with a bang as Emmanuel Mayuka and Rainford Kalaba scored within the first 20 minutes en route to a shock 2-1 victory over much fancied Senegal.
Next came Libya in a Bata mudbath sparked by torrential pre-match rain and while the swift-footed Zambians often got bogged down by the conditions, they displayed resilience to come from behind twice and take a point.
Needing a win over co-hosts Equatorial Guinea in their final Group A fixture to dodge a last-eight match-up with title co-favourites Côte d'Ivoire, they succeeded thanks to a goal from captain Christopher Katongo.
Young brother Felix Katongo and fellow 2012 squad member James Chamanga were among the scorers when Zambia outplayed Sudan 3-0 four years ago in Ghana in the only previous Cup of Nations meeting between the countries.
"You just have to fight for the flag you represent and for the national colours you wear," said Renard as he beat a patriotic drum ahead of the first quarter-final of the weekend at the 35,000-seat Estadio de Bata.
In honour of fallen heroes
Zambia desperately want to win the Cup of Nations for the first time next weekend in Gabon as a plane carrying the 1993 national squad crashed into the Atlantic soon after refuelling in Libreville and all 30 on board died.
"Imagine if we could lift the trophy there - it would be a fantastic way to honour the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving the land they loved," added Renard.
If the presence of the Copper Bullets among the eight survivors of the group phase is no surprise, few outside Sudan gave the Jediane Falcons much chance of making it ahead of Angola and Burkina Faso.
Coach Mohamed 'Mazda' Abdallah insisted before the tournament kicked off two weeks ago that his inexperienced, all-local squad devoid of stars was capable of getting out of Group B behind Côte d'Ivoire.
After giving the star-studded Ivorians a few frights before failing narrowly, the Falcons hit back twice to hold Angola and a Mohamed Eltaib brace bagged maximum points against Burkina Faso and qualification on goal difference.
Abdallah brought only a few of the 2008 squad to central Africa this month and one - long-seving goalkeeper Almoiz Mahgoub - was axed after the defeat against Côte d'Ivoire with Akram El Hadi elevated.
He is likely to be the busier goalkeeper as Mayuka, the only Europe-based top-flight professional in the Zambian squad, Katongo and Rainford Kalaba seek the goals that will earn them a semi-finals crack at Ghana or Tunisia.
"Zambia are a fast, well organised team which has achieved good results here and we must prepare tactically and physically for them," said former national team skipper Abdallah.