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Flames off to challenge star-studded Ivory Coast

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Meck Mwase

By Williams Gondwa & Peter Fote

Malawi National Football Team finally flew off to Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday for two back-to-back 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifiers against Ivory Coast.

The Flames host the Elephants Friday at Orlando Stadium in Soweto before meeting again in a reverse fixture on Monday in Cotonou, Benin.

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The 30-man squad returns to the venue of the 1-0 win over Mozambique last month, courtesy of Richard Mbulu’s all-important goal.

The Flames cannot play at their Bingu National Stadium home after the Confederation of African Football banned the China-built facility from hosting matches due to its poor state.

The match is expected to be one of coach Meck Mwase’s toughest as Ivory Coast counterpart Patrice Beaumelle has named a star-studded team made up of top stars plying their trade in big European teams.

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The Ivorian squad includes free agent Serge Aurier, formerly of English Premiership side Tottenham Hotspur.

Others are Arsenal winger Nicolas Pépé as well as Crystal Palace ace Wilfried Zaha. Veteran striker Gervinho, who plays for Turkish side Trabzonspor, has also made the squad after missing September’s action with Pepe

However, Mwase said they are not moved with the big names.

Speaking before departure Wednesday, Mwase said he was confident that his charges would overcome the West Africans.

“We do not fear the big names that are in our opponents’ camp. We expected them when we were drawn against Ivory Coast. We are ready to face them. I am sure that our opponents are aware that we were not a walkover.

“This is the reason they have brought up that squad. We will have extra motivation in the two matches because we want to make history. The players are working hard so that they make history,” he said.

Mwase said the Flames have a history of withstanding the pressure of facing big teams with world-class players.

“We played against Ivory Coast at Kamuzu Stadium when they had former African Footballers of the Year Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, among others, with the match ending in a draw. So there is nothing to worry about.

“They will feature 11 players and we will do the same. I believe in my players’ abilities. We are ready to take the game to Ivory Coast and we will play for a win. We know they will be hard to beat because of their experience and exposure but we are just ready for them. Let them parade all their stars. We will meet on the pitch,” he said.

Also in the Ivory Coast squad is Ajax Amsterdam’s goal machine Sébastien Haller, who has been recalled after his brilliant brace against Cameroon.

His compatriot Jean Evrard Kouassi is also present as well as big names such as Max Alain Gradel and wantaway AC Milan midfielder Franck Késsié.

Flames team manager Clement Kafwafwa, who also played in Europe with Danish side FC Copenhagen, said they were treating the encounter just like any other.

“It is just a normal game like any other. We are not scared. Yes we are small on paper but we play with the heart of a lion. We believe anything can happen in football. Here is a team that has a lot of confidence and experience with players from top European teams but football dynamics have changed a lot these days.

“We will play to win and nothing less. Of course, we are fully aware that they are a good side. They beat Cameroon away but we can also pull a surprise as nobody is giving us a chance. We are capable of shocking them,” Kafwafwa said.

The group of 12 Flames players was joined by South Africa and Mozambique-based players and had an afternoon session Wednesday.

Ivory Coast are leading the group with four points while Cameroon are second with three points.

Malawi are third with three points while Mozambique anchor the group with a point from two games.

The Elephants also arrived in Johannesburg Wednesday.

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