Malawi national football team, whose cold performances have left their nickname of the Flames so steeped in irony, flew out to Harare, Zimbabwe yesterday.
Before departure at Chileka Airport, the Flames acknowledged the presence of the few fans by waving good-bye ahead of tomorrow’s 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) Group L qualifier.
Barring a drastic upsurge in form, the Flames might have as well been unconsciously waving good-bye to the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifying race.
Ill-prepared, changing and chopping of the team’s spine and the pressure for results has seen coach Ernest Mtawali abandoning his rebuilding project and take to Zimbabwe experienced campaigners such as midfielder Joseph Kamwendo, striker Peter Wadabwa and goalkeeper Charles Swini.
It means that in every two games, the Flames are playing with a new strike-partnership and a new man between the sticks.
Five players—Isaac Kaliyati, Brighton Munthali, Chimango Kayira, Robert Ng’ambi and Limbikani Mzava— who were in the starting line-up in the 1-2 home loss to Guinea in the group, will be unavailable tomorrow.
And the problem is that even Football Association of Malawi (Fam), President Walter Nyamilandu, is convinced that rebuilding can be completed in a mere 10 months.
“The rebuilding is over. People now want to see the results of the rebuilding,” Nyamilandu told Times Radio on Wednesday.
In tomorrow’s game, Malawi cannot be ruled out before they step on Rufaro Stadium but their away form and history does not favour them going into this Group L qualifier.
Malawi last won 2-0 in Zimbabwe on October 3 1982.The Flames have beaten the Warriors on home soil once in 18 games.
The two teams have since attaining independence from the British rule met 54 times with Zimbabwe winning the most 19 against 18 for Malawi and 17 draws.
Malawi’s away record is worrying. From the reign of Kim Splidsboel, Kinnah Phiri, Young Chimodzi, Eddingtone Ng’onamo and the current coach Ernest Mtawali, you can count the Flames away wins in competitive games since 2000—- 1-0 in Namibia (2013), 3-0 in Djibouti (in 2009) and 3-1 in Ethiopia (2003).
Mtawali has in competitive games lost once on the road 2-0 in Tanzania with the rest being draws; 2-2 in Swaziland and 1-1 in Guinea. Overall, Mtawali’s record is unimpressive three wins, three draws and four losses.
“We have been ruled out but football is funny. Strange things happen in football,” said Mtawali, who spied on the Warriors as they upset Uganda’s Cranes 2-0 on Tuesday in a warm-up match in Harare.
Going into tomorrow’s encounter, Mtawali, who has been given a near-impossible target of beating Zimbabwe and winning 2016 Cosafa Castle Cup, is fighting for his job.
His one-year contract ends on August 1, and for the first time Nyamilandu, appeared to have lost patience with his former Flames team-mate.
The team’s sponsor, Carlsberg Malawi Limited, made it plain in Blantyre that the company was unhappy with the Flames’ dismal performance.
Looking at the star-studded Zimbabwe, it is difficult imagining the Flames beating a team that was, at its lowest, able to defeat Malawi 2-1 at home.
If it were boxing may be this would have been a foregone conclusion that the Warriors, boasting genuine professionals such as Khama Billiat and Knowledge Musona, have already won this contest.
Ranked seven places behind Malawi, the 115th ranked Warriors have evolved from being a bastion of defensive football into a balanced attacking side.
Zimbabwe now boast midfield grafters such as Danny Phiri and Willard Katsande, who provide a platform for free spirits such as Kudakwachi Mahachi and Billiat, to thrill in the attacking-third.
But such is the beauty of football, stranger things bordering on miracles happen.
Perhaps it is only on that premise that Mtawali and his assistant Nsanzurwimo Ramadhan believe they can snatch first maximum points and revive the mathematical prospects.
On Monday, Ramadhan came closer to admitting that with two points from five winless games compared to leaders Zimbabwe’s eight points, qualification is a bridge too far to cross.
“I agree we must bring back the glory of the Flames. We have been pushing ourselves to the limit in training. We will do our best, but in football there is something you cannot control—the result. There is a win, a draw and a loss, but we will try to eliminate the rest and get a win,” Ramadhan told Fam and Carlsberg officials.
If the Flames cannot control the match in Harare then they are in for a shock.
Tactically the Flames might not be sound, but even before the coaches think about tactics, the headache starts from goalkeeping.
Charles Swini might man the posts making him a fourth keeper that Mtawali has experimented in vain. He has tried Richard Chipuwa, Brighton Munthali and Simplex Nthala with no success.
Swini might be in form at his club in Mozambique, but it takes time for a keeper and a new defence to be on the same page.
The defence lacks a leader, let alone anyone worth the name of a sweeper. And Mzava is out through injury. Further up the pitch, midfield ball-winners are unavailable and so are creative players able to provide a through-pass to a striker.
Upfront, only Chiukepo Msowoya and Frank Gabadinho Mhangho seem good enough to score. So where does Mtawali start from with the squad that is defensively imbalanced and impotent upfront?
These are desperate times for Flames and time is not on Mtawali’s side.
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