Backs to the wall. The odds are stacked against the Flames as they go into the second-leg of the 2018 Fifa World Cup preliminary qualifier against the Taifa Stars of Tanzania this afternoon at Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre following their 0-2 defeat in a midweek first-leg fixture in Dar es Salaam.
But it doesn’t always go according to script, does it? And the Flames are hoping against all odds to roar back like some unstoppable force of nature in the quest of reviving their global showpiece campaign which hangs by a thread.
The Flames need to win by a three-goal margin to sail through, or at least, 2-0 to force the game into penalties and hope that the gods of football will smile on them as they did during the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. In a game against Benin, Malawi lost 1-0 away but won by the same margin at home to draw level.
This afternoon’s showdown kicks off at 2pm, so by 4pm the Flames will have known their fate. The nation will probably wake up on Sunday enveloped by a feeling of celebrating a grand triumph or searching its soul after yet another failed campaign.
The world of sport, and football in particular, has always feasted on the appeal of Cinderella tales when the underdog finds oneself facing an odds-on favourite—hoping for that stunning comeback—and such is the beauty of football that you never know what is going to happen until the final whistle.
And Flames’ ever upbeat coach Ernest Mtawali believes his charges can defy the odds and stage a dramatic comeback this afternoon.
“Yes, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against us, but that matters little when you have the spirit, courage and determination to fight every inch of the way.
“It is a tall order, but I am appealing to soccer-loving Malawians to rally behind the boys who are determined to give their all for the sake of their motherland,” said Mtawali in a pre-match interview.
But sheer bravery will not be enough, the Flames will need an all-round performance to upset the tables.
He said for the past two days, the focus was on the players’ psychology and drum into them that the battle is not yet over.
“It was more about lifting their spirits and make them believe that it is not over yet and they can still do it. There were lessons learnt from the first leg encounter and we are trying to make the best of the little time we have to work on rectifying our weak areas,” said the Flames legend.
He, however, admitted that for the Flames to revive their flickering hope, they will have to punch beyond their weight and give out something extra.
“And we are also mindful that Tanzania will not sit back, while being cautious at the back they will want to catch us on the break and we’ll need to take extra caution.”
Mtawali also said the return of revived hitman Chiukepo Msowoya is a timely boost to the Flames.
Captain Limbikani Mzava appealed to the fans to give them the benefit of the doubt.
“We owe Malawians a lot and all I can assure them is that we will fight our lungs out. One thing is for sure, we have nothing to lose, we will fight to the very end,” said Mzava.
Taifa Stars coach Charles Mkwasa apparently suggested that they will not get complacent following the first-leg win and promised a strong performance in the return leg, insisting that the tie is far from over.
“It is just half-time, we need to be at our best to finish off the job done. We’re determined to qualify for the next round. So, we’ll go there to win,” Mkwasa was quoted as saying by Tanzania’s Daily News.
Football pundit and former sports minister Moses Dossi said the mission is not beyond the realms of possibility, “but they will need to attack intensively from the word go to the end and, perhaps, the coach should also consider changing the 4-3-2-1 formation to 4-4-2 which we are accustomed to.”
Revitalised Chiukepo, who has the ability to change the course of the game with a priceless goal, carries the hopes of the Flames that have been thrust on his shoulders and is expected to mesh with Frank ‘Gabadinho’ Mhango . Midfielders John CJ’ Banda, Gerald Phiri Jnr and Micium Mhone are the other potential match winners for the Flames.
But Mtawali will need to tighten the defence as well as goalkeeping, which have been the Flames weakest link in recent games.
Tanzania, who were expected to get the feel of the match venue on Saturday, will look up to their DR Congo-based duo Ali Mbwana Sammatta and Thomas Ulimwengu who scored their goals in the first-leg.