NGEZI Platinum’s finish of the first half of the Castle Lager Premier Soccer League season coupled with FC Platinum’s start to the second half have rendered this title campaign open to a number of teams once again.
BY HENRY MHARA/TERRY MADYAUTA
For a while, this race looked to be a private platinum party, but Ngezi’s three defeats at the tail end of the first half, as well as FC Platinum’s three match winless run in the start of the second half, have got the likes of Chicken Inn, Triangle and probably Caps, as well as Highlanders, believing again.
A lot has changed in the Castle Lager Premiership title race in the past three weeks, and Ngezi Platinum Stars’ win over Dynamos on Sunday, a day after log leaders FC Platinum had stuttered once again, was pivotal.
Three weeks ago, the Norman Mapeza-coached side looked firm favourites to tie up the league title after opening a six-point gap at the top, but it’s not the case anymore.
Currently, the Zvishavane-based side still lead the chase with a two-point advantage over Ngezi Platinum Stars and nine ahead of Chicken Inn, but they are obviously constantly checking over their shoulders.
They have picked up just two points from a possible nine in their last three matches following a surprise 2-1 defeat at home to ZPC Kariba, and preceding an equally shocking 1-1 draw against Yadah.
On Saturday, they were lucky to come out with a point in a 0-0 draw against Caps United at Mandava Stadium, in a match the visitors were denied what appeared a genuine goal.
“I predicted that the second half of the season would be a tough run for us, but that is not an excuse for the team’s performance at the moment,” Mapeza, who guided the team to its first ever title triumph last season, said.
“We are remaining focused and thinking much about our next match. We might have dropped points since the restart of the season, but we are still in control and I think we will achieve our ultimate objective of this season.”
While Mapeza is putting on a brave face, he knows hauling his team back from such setbacks can be a tough task.
They are away to Bulawayo City when the league resumes after this weekend’s break, which will be a huge game.
FC Platinum’s next four games look quite easy on paper, but as they have found out in the last three weeks, those are actually the most difficult ones.
After Bulawayo City, they have a Midlands derby against Chapungu, a team that is fighting for dear life, before taking on their bogey side Harare City. They then host Bulawayo Chiefs, the team that handed them their first defeat this season.
“The home stretch if full of twists and turns, but we are not giving in so easily. We have 14 games left to play before the season ends. It’s game on,” Mapeza said.
After a dominant start to the league, Ngezi Platinum Stars looked like they had lost their way after four straight defeats that had also put coach Tonderai Ndiraya under the spotlight.
But they bounced back in the last two weeks, recording a vital win against Triangle.
The Mhondoro-Ngezi team then beat Dynamos at the weekend and suddenly, they have the momentum once again.
They have a tough fixtures line-up in their next five matches..
The major highlight though will be a trip to Chicken Inn, a game which FC Platinum will obviously have a keen interest on.
But first, they will have to deal with relegation candidates Nichrut, before they host Shabanie Mine. They will also have to make a cross-country trip with two away matches to Vengere against Mutare City, before travelling to Bulawayo to face Highlanders.
The major beneficiaries of the top two teams’ recent slump of form are Chicken Inn. A month ago, the title race had been narrowed down to two teams, but Joey Antipas’ men have roared back into the mix. A fortnight ago, he appeared to be given up on the chase after his team was held to a 1-1 draw by Dynamos, leaving the gap with FC Platinum at 13 points. But after his team’s win against Mutare City at the weekend, the narrative has changed.
There are still 42 points still to be played for and the Bulawayo-based side knows that a window has opened, although they remain modest about their chances.
“They (FC Platinum) have to lose three games for us to have a chance, but all we are doing is going game by game and continuing to pick up points.
“If they lose points, it’s good for us, but for the time being, we are just concentrating on having a good finish to the season.
“They haven’t picked maximum points in three games, and we got seven points, but they are still favourites. So we will continue to play to catch up and see how it ends,” Antipas said after his team’s 1-0 win at Vengere.