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Pressure on for Lioli



Sports Reporter

MASERU – It is not how you start but how you finish.

With the peaks and troughs of a long, arduous season, being the tortoise rather than the hare is occasionally beneficial and this is the message Lioli’s disciples are preaching and fighting to believe after last Saturday’s shock 1-0 loss to Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) to open the champions’ 2016/17 Vodacom Premier League campaign.

The unexpected defeat was the first time ‘Tse Nala’ have lost the opening game of a season since a 2-1 reverse against Arsenal on September 2, 2007 – the first day of the 2007/08 campaign.

In fact, in each of the seven seasons before this one, ‘Tse Nala’ had started their campaign with a victory as Mabeoana, Joy, Likhopo, LMPS, Mpharane Celtics and Sundawana (twice) rotated roles as the opening day sacrificial lambs for Lioli fans’ pleasure.

Last Saturday was meant to be another celebration, until LMPS forgot to read the full script.

Of course, this is one game and, taken in isolation, the loss to LMPS might have been nothing overly worrying.

However, the fact Lioli’s defeat came hot on the heels of Mosholi Mokhothu leaving as their head coach has triggered the slightest tinge of panic amongst Teyateyaneng’s success-filled faithful.

Their uneasiness, perhaps, is also driven by awareness that, with only 26 matches in a full league season, Lesotho has a lower margin for error than many other places.

The last four title races, for example, have been decided by an average of five points; last year the gap was just a point. So, dropped points always hurt for title chasing clubs.

It is why questions were raised by ‘Tse Nala’ fans departing from Setsoto on Saturday afternoon and those drowning their sorrows at bars afterwards – Lioli have been the gold standard for Lesotho football for the past two years but that clinical nature was not on display against LMPS.

New mega signing Thapelo Tale showed he still needs to find peak sharpness while stars such as Jeremia Kamela and Tšoanelo Koetle were unusually not at their luminous best.

Immediately, the fingers and fears will point to the change to Halemakale Mahlaha as Lioli coach.

History, of course, is always on people’s minds and it has a way of repeating itself.

In 2009, Mokhothu guided the Teyateyaneng giants to their first title in 24 years but work commitments led him to leave his post as coach soon afterwards. Mahlaha took over and Lioli lost the title to Matlama the following season and began a downward spiral that eventually reached an eighth place finish in 2011 and was only halted by the arrival of Lehlohonolo Thotanyana as coach in 2012.

The stakes are perhaps even higher now for the club.

Lioli are looking to join the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) vintage of 1997, 1998 and 1999 as the only sides to win three league titles in a row.

This is also the season the club feels it can make some noise in the CAF Champions League. Again, Lioli are trying to match LDF, the last team from Lesotho to win a tie in the Champions League, back in 2001.

And, ‘Tse Nala’ have invested heavily in view of these targets by bringing in Likuena’s all-time top scorer in the COSAFA Cup, Tale, snagging Setho Moshoeshoe from the United States and stepping up efforts to professionalise the club.

These stakes are why Lioli were so desperate to keep Mokhothu even though work commitments had occupied him all year and made him miss the Lesotho Football Association coaching course in July that ultimately cost him his job.

Beyond his tactical acumen – four league titles in seven years – Mokhothu’s calm and thoughtful demeanour endeared him to players and fans alike.

However, with Mahlaha now installed as coach Lioli are in many ways starting from scratch again, with no pre-season to adjust. Tactical decisions may be revised and the overall atmosphere and approach to daily facets such as training may change.

Lioli communications and marketing manager Tšeliso Lerata, of course, insisted there is nothing to worry about.

“I don’t think the changes that have been made to the technical team have affected the players. On Saturday we did everything but luck was not on our side,” Lerata said, and there is some truth to that.

Lioli hit the woodwork twice and had several openings they didn’t take.

However, football is a results-orientated business and the pressure is already on for the champions. Next up Lioli travel to Roma to face Rovers and, as early as it is, that match will take the form of a must-win game.

The saving grace for ‘Tse Nala’ is there is an international break until they face Rovers next weekend.

Essentially this break should give Mahlaha some respite and more time to prepare for the big tests that wait.

Rivals take advantage

With Lioli slipping up, it was imperative for their rivals to take advantage and the new and possibly improved Bantu did just that by showing their pre-season hype has some justification.

‘A Matšo Matebele’ played well to beat a plucky but ultimately overmatched Rovers side 3-1 in a lively, well-attended affair at Setsoto on Sunday.

It is three points and it is a good start for James Madidilane as Bantu coach.

Fears it might take time for the team to gel in the wake of all the off-season changes seemed unfounded, at least for one afternoon.

With players such as Litšepe Marabe and Hlompho Kalake, Bantu are certainly quick enough to catch Lioli at the top. It is their endurance to last a whole season and their solidity at the back, as illustrated by Rovers’ soft goal, which remains in question.

Big spending Kick4Life are another potential hare chasing Lioli and they also got off to a bright start by beating Likhopo 2-0 while last year’s bridesmaids Matlama welcomed Butha-Buthe Warriors to the big leagues with a 2-1 spanking.

But, not everyone got the memo.

While Bantu, Kick4Life and Matlama will all be smiling and dreaming dreams of gold during this impromptu two-week break, others didn’t quite get the memo.

Linare, seemingly eternally embattled these days, got off to the worst possible start by losing 1-0 to newly-promoted Sky Battalion at home. The two-time champions seem destined for another season of woe.

Another former champion also bit the dust last weekend as title hopefuls and last season’s third place finishers, Lesotho Correctional Service, lost 1-0 to Liphakoe in Quthing.

Then again, maybe that result should not have come as a surprise given Liphakoe declared they want to win the league.

Such lofty ambitions, though, will play out over eight long months until next May.

Who will be the tortoise and who will be the hare? That, only time will tell because match-day one has already shown there will be drama this season.

Indeed, there is really only one thing that can be said with clarity right now.

It is not how you start, it is how you finish.

Week one results: Lioli 0-1 LMPS, Kick4Life 2-0 Likhopo, Linare 0-1 Sky Battalion, LDF 1-1 Sundawana, Bantu 3-1 Rovers, Liphakoe 1-0 LCS, Butha-Buthe Warriors 1-2 Matlama

Vodacom Premier League Standings

1 Bantu 1 1 0 0 3 1 2 3
2 Kick4life 1 1 0 0 2 0 2 3
3 Matlama 1 1 0 0 2 1 1 3
4 Liphakoe 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 3
5 LMPS 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 3
6 Sky Battalion 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 3
7 LDF 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 1
8 Sundawana 1 0 1 0 1 1 0 1
9 Butha-Buthe Warriors 1 0 0 1 1 2 -1 0
10 LCS 1 0 0 1 0 1 -1 0
11 Linare 1 0 0 1 0 1 -1 0
12 Lioli 1 0 0 1 0 1 -1 0
13 Rovers 1 0 0 1 1 3 -2 0
14 Likhopo 1 0 0 1 0 2 -2 0


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