Malawi National Football Team, the Flames, last evening bowed out of the 2022 Qatar Fifa World Cup qualification race after losing 2-1 to Ivory Coast’s Elephants at Stade de L’amitie General Mathieu Kerekou in Cotonou, Benin.
With just the group leaders making it to the third and final round, the result means the Flames and Mozambique’s Mambas are practically out of the battle for qualification since they cannot overtake leaders Ivory Coast even if they win each of their remaining two qualifiers.
Ivory Coast lead the group with 10 points followed by Cameroon, who beat Mozambique 1-0 in the other Group D match also played yesterday, with nine points.
The Flames are third with three points while Mozambique anchor the group with a single point.
The battle for the qualification is now between the two West African nations who clash the last rounds of qualifiers for the group in November.
But despite the defeat, it was a much improved performance by Malawi after last Friday’s 3-0 loss in the first leg played at Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa where the Flames are playing their home matches following a ban on Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
In a match streamed on Fifa Television, coach Meck Mwase made some changes, benching Mighty Wanderers goalkeeper Richard Chipuwa for Silver Strikers’ Brightone Munthali.
He also replaced injured captain Limbikani Mzava with Peter Cholopi in central defence. Cholopi played alongside Charles Petro, Stanley Sanudi and Dennis Chembezi.
Stand-in captain John ‘CJ’ Banda and Chikoti Chirwa partnered in central midfield while Frank ‘Gabadinho’ Mhango played on the left with Francisco Madinga on the right in place of Peter Banda.
Attacking midfielder Chimwemwe Idana, who missed Friday’s match due to a two yellow cards’ suspension, was deployed just behind lone striker Khuda Muyaba.
It was a well thought out first eleven with balanced attackers and defensive players as Mwase tried to match the hosts’ midfield of Jean Michael Seri and Franck Kessie as well as the striking force of Turkey-based Gervinho (Trabzonspor) and English Premiership duo of Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace) and Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal).
But a defensive error just two minutes into the match derailed the coach’s plans as the hosts took the lead through Pepe.
Cholopi thought he could clear the ball stylishly only to miscue it and Pepe thankfully struck past Munthali.
It took 20 minutes for the Flames to recover and get a deserved equaliser through Muyaba, who had a wonderful game, after some donkey work from defending midfielder Chirwa.
Chirwa won the ball after a midfield battle before playing it to Muyaba on the edge of the box, who struck with his left foot into the right corner, beating Ivory Coast goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo.
The Elephants, who are also playing away from home due to a CAF ban on their home ground, almost restored the lead minutes later, but Gervinho’s effort on the right side was tipped over by Munthali with a brilliant save.
Malawi also had a chance to take the lead, but Yamikani Chester who replaced misfiring Mhango, saw his shot cleared off the line by defender Willy Boly just before half-time.
Malawi were dealt a blow in 65th minute when the referee awarded the hosts a penalty after a foul on Gervinho on the edge of the box.
AC Milan’s Kessie made no mistake to restore Ivory Coast’s lead.
In a post-match interview, Mwase said: “I believe we have gone down fighting. I am very proud of my boys for the fighting spirit they have shown.
“It’s very unfortunate that we conceded those two goals.
“The penalty… I am not sure [if was a real penalty]. We also had a penalty denied.”