By Kandani Ngwira
When the judges overturned the 2019 rigged presidential elections, we wrote the greatest story of our lives as journalists. It was unprecedented. It brought smiles, relief and hope to many Malawians here at home and abroad.
How that has panned out is all there for everybody to see. But that is besides the point. The point is on Tuesday 18th January 2022 we have another opportunity to write yet another greatest story of our lives when Malawi, The Flames, face the Teranga Lions of Senegal in the final qualification match of group B to determine who qualifies for knock out stages.
It is another story with potential to bring smiles hope and relief to many Malawians weighed down by the crippling distresses of tough economic times. A win or draw will guarantee Flames passage to the last 16. We also have an outside chance of qualifying as best losers if we finish in third place. If Malawi qualifies it will be unprecedented. We will better the AFCON 2010 record in Angola where although we took big scalp in beating Algeria, we fell short against Mali and hosts Angola.
Perhaps what will be sweet about Tuesday’s qualification is the calibre of the opponent, Senegal, compared to us.
Flames are minnows. On position 129 we are the fourth lowest ranked team of the 24 at the 33rd edition of the AFCON tournament with only Comoros (132), Ethiopia (137) and Gambia (150) behind us. Our players mostly are home based in the much maligned TNM Super League, except for a few in South Africa. The win against Zimbabwe was a punch above the Flames weight.
Senegal on the other hand are Africa’s highest ranked team and number 20 in the world. They are one of the tournaments favourites to lift the 33rd AFCON trophy. They boast the who is who of Africa’s elite talent plying their trade in Europe. Talk of Champions League winner in Chelsea’s goal keeper Edouard Mendy. Napoli’s defence stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly. In central midfield they have the most effective box to box man in PSG’s Gana Gueye. Not to mention Liverpool’s ever lively Sadio Mane.
Senegal were losing finalist at the last AFCON 2019 against Algeria. But as it sometimes happens, tournament favourites often carry the burden of heavy expectations which mostly ends in tears.
We have already witnessed how Algeria have imploded under the weight of great expectations. They are AFCON defending champions fresh from winning the Arab Cup trophy in Qatar last month. But after two games they are bottom of group E after uncharacteristic loss against Equatorial Guinea hot on the heels of another poor result against Sierra Leone. Their last game is tricky and difficult against another tournament favourite Ivory Coast.
What are Flames chances of winning and qualifying
Flames chances of beating Senegal are 50:50. Because Senegal will come fighting like a wounded buffalo. The Teranga Lions are under pressure. And this could work to the Flames advantage.
After humbling Zimbabwe Warriors to failures, the Flames now have their tails up. The level of confidence is very high. They will not show any respect for names because against Zimbabwe and Guinea (who escaped punishment by the skin of their teeth) it has shown that names don’t win matches but hard work and determination.
Flames should play to win although a draw is good enough to earn qualification. Our team managers should give the players enough time to recover. Recuperation is very key at tournaments. Ensuring the players are fresh after that grueling encounter against Zimbabwe. We need John Banda and Idana to maintain high levels of work rate in midfield to cancel out Senegal who love to orchestrate attacks from midfield.
We come in as underdogs and unknown to the world. The other teams hardly know how we play. This gives Malawi the element of surprise which stunned Zimbabwe. We know how Mane plays after watching him on tv playing for Liverpool. But they don’t know how stealthily Gaba plays. They don’t know the wizardry of Fransico Madinga’s left leg; deft and agile. The trickery and an eye for that defence splitting pass from Peter Banda. It is an important trick under our sleeves.
After the two games at AFCON, it is clear the Flames style of play has improved drastically. From a team that used to play too many back passes to a fast attacking team. Previously we couldn’t shoot at goal but now we finish matches with more attempts at goal than opponents.
It’s now clear we should have won against Guinea but we were denied services of six key players through Covid19. If Gabadihno Mhango, Charles Petro, Peter Cholopi, Stanley Sanudi, Robin Ngalande and Lawrence Chaziya were available, it could have been different.
Once again, Gaba and Richard Mbulu will carry the hopes of the Flames. Both have a knack for goals. Mbulu should be in good shape now after staying with the team for a week. The burgeoning and diminutive Peter Banda, should start as number 10. He can create chances for the strikers with his cleverness. The idea of using Mbulu as a wide player is counterproductive. He does not have the pace. Francisco Madinga should be told to place in those crosses as early as possible. He should do it the David Beckham way: cross it early and behind the defenders.
We should continue the 4-3-3 formation with Mbulu, Gaba and Madinga while CJ and Idana should operate in the midfield with Peter Banda higher up as number 10.
Go Flames goooo!!!!!