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Flames: Plate before cup?

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There is nothing more ominous in a continental qualifying match than to meet a team that gave you a 1-4 beating at your home ground in your first match as co-coaches: Flames managerial duo of Young Chimodzi and Jack Chamangwana can agree.

Young and Jack did not have much of a rosy ride in their first outing: They had fans baying for their blood right from their uninspiring tennis-score loss to Zimbabwe’s Warriors when they took over as co-coaches. And adding insult to injury, the loss was graced by expectant fans at the once-upon-a-time feared Kamuzu Stadium, where—despite his glaring lack of tactical acumen in encouraging flair as the currency of football—Kinnah Phiri had made the venue a slaughter house for visiting teams.

When the game starts today, Flames supporters, who have been deprived of genuine joy for so long, will tightly hold on spider-web thin threads of hope for another fortuitous qualification to Africa’s grand football fiesta. They last qualified half a decade ago.

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Five years ago, the Flames had a roller-coaster ride in the Afcon qualifiers when, despite being pooled against seemingly—maybe obviously—tough groups they ended up sharing the turf with Africa’s in-form 15 teams.

Then, they played something akin to football. It was a matter of hit and rush, energy investment, mother luck and, voila! A ticket to Angola was booked.

Today’s tale is different. The Flames have a fairer group, have tactically astute coaches and their football has a semblance of normalcy. They have so much to hope for, yet risk the noisiest of ridicule

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Cup comes after plate

Only faint memories remain since the Flames pranced on a winners’ plinth. It has been nearly three decades since the team won its last serious—that is if regional football matters—trophy: The 1988 edition of East and Central Africa Senior Challenge Cup. In between, I think, they won some not-so-famous three-day tourney in Mozambique, or wherever that was, until recently when they won the Plate Section of the Cosafa Cup.

In all honesty and brutal truth, the Plate Section was a circus of failures. But among the failures, the Flames proved to have been better than the rest. The cup in itself was not worth of pomp and funfair: But what path the team took is what matters most. We must built positivity from the plate win, after all in eating a cup is always preceded by a plate.

Better than yesterday

Fans often say, the Flames always play better but eventually end up on the losing end. That was true, before 2006. Between 2006 and 2014, the Flames haven’t played the usual passing game they were famed for but they have managed to get some memorable wins. It was normal to expect a result against notable teams like Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Egypt, DR Congo. But the football was without direction. Clearly, the team was bound to falter against tactically calm teams. That is why, the away record was poor. One measure of a great team is playing at ease in away games where the metal usually meets the meat.

The team that played in the just ended Cosafa tourney was far ahead of the team that qualified for the Afcon as far as organisational play is concerned. Organisation play simply means the art of retaining the ball, playing with ease and always keeping the other team off-balance. The Flames recently did that at the Cosafa.

The play from Micium Mhone, Gerald Phiri Jnr, Christopher John Banda stands out for me as something worth building on.

However, the usual naivety cost the team big time.

Last quarter naivety

At the Cosafa Tourney, the Flames kept the ball well during most periods on the match and on the greater period of the pitch. However, just like has been the case before, there was nothing inspiring in the last quarter of the pitch.

A team that stands a better chance of winning is always one that plays cleverly—not the ex- Manchester United player—with the confidence to get players and the ball behind their opponents.

If you look at all the goals the Flames scored, there is a great element of undeserved fortune: A header from a dead ball, a penalty and scrambled one are not that worth writing about.

What is lacking is for the Flames to start creating 30-yards from the opponents’ goal. Rarely do you see a goal from the Flames after a string of thoughtful, balanced and acumen executed passes. The Flames need to up their game in this area.

Irony of defensive mishaps

Just like they have been found wanting in their last quarter play, the Flames’ defence has a height of flesh to their socks. When it matters most, the teams defence seem to have the luxury of drifting into trance. During the match against Mozambique, the teams failed to defend a last minute goal. The Mozambicans, I am sure, were equally stunned and mortified by the generosity and carelessness of the Flames defence.

Think of it, the Flames are coached by two men whose names are synonymous to legendary defending yet they cannot translate their once-upon-a-time expertise into their players.

All the Flames must learn is that in football, most of the game is played in the head other than on the pitch. The referee will book you for time wastage but, when it matters most—just as when the Flames took the lead against Mozambique—a team can have the luxury of spending a minute at the corner flag celebrating a goal. That would have eased the tense of the match and allow the Flames to properly regroup. They seriously lack leaders in the team.

For instance, that red card captain Lucky Malata received in the match against Zambia is an example of how the team is lacking in leadership. Of all the people, the captain must be the last person to earn such a cheap card from such a harmless situation. Young and Jack need to take this seriously.

Stings to the tail

Whoever has the switch to Flames players’ sleep, must make sure it stays on throughout. In so many matches, the team has flattered at the end of the match.

There is need for discipline in this area. The coaches must tell the players that a match only ends when the referee blows the final whistle.

We need not to remind ourselves about Machava Stadium in 1997, Djamena in 2012 and the recent Cosafa tourney.

Still there is hope

After the recent outing at Cosafa, the Flames mus shore up their hope. Granted they won a basic and cheap plate section of the tournament but what fans must bank there is the truth that the team did not lose any game in open play, that they scored five goals(never mind the two on the wrong end), no opponent scored in Flames goal in open play, and that they beat Zambia and South Africa: Ask the legendary Lawrence Waya, Ernest Mtawali, Albert Mpinganjira, Mabvuto Lungu how it has never been easy beating these two teams.

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