By Robson Sharuko
Its turning into a classic Castle Lager Premiership marathon and the big picture could change dramatically, within the next few weeks, with the Top Four battle-weary teams facing explosive assignments both at home and on the road.
Questions have, inevitably, emerged amid all the unpredictability that has become the tale of this tight race for the premier prize on the local football scene. Have FC Platinum, the richest club to play in the domestic Premiership, run out of steam at a crucial stage and can Motor Action’s steely resolve to defend their crown – built on a punishing defence and solid organisation – be broken?
Will Dynamos complete the greatest comeback story, in the history of the championship and win the big prize, or could Highlanders have the last, and longest, laugh by ending five years of waiting to be crowned champions? Even the fans appear to have sensed the special nature of this vintage race and there was a full-house at Mandava on Sunday for a top-of-the-table clash between FC Platinum and Motor Action.
The game between Dynamos and Shabanie, which attracted an unusually big crowd for such an encounter, was delayed by 30 minutes at Rufaro to allow more fans, still trapped outside the stadium by 3pm, to come into the ground.
So, who will be the champions?
The Top Four – Motor Action, FC Platinum, Dynamos and Highlanders – will avoid each other until Week 26, when DeMbare host Bosso at Rufaro, but the minefield remains dangerous ground with a number of snipers stalking them.
Then it will all explode into mayhem, with Week 28 serving an epic DeMbare/Mighty Bulls showdown at Rufaro, and Week 29 bringing the FC Platinum/Dynamos battle in Zvishavane.
There will still be time to say goodbye for all of them, with cagey encounters for the Top Four as the curtain comes down, with Motor Action away to Black Mambas, FC Platinum away to Shooting Stars, Highlanders away to Shabanie and Dynamos at home to Kiglon.
Only five points separate the leading duo, Motor Action and FC Platinum, from Dynamos, with the Glamour Boys just a point better than Highlanders, whose 1-0 win over the wealthy platinum miners blew the championship race wide open.
DeMbare were the biggest winners at the weekend, taking full advantage of the draws for Motor Action. FC Platinum and Bosso, to move into third place and, crucially, just five points adrift of the leaders with a massive 27 points still to play for. There could be more twists this coming weekend with all the four teams playing away from home.
The Mighty Bulls and FC Platinum visit a City of Kings, which has turned itself into hostile territory for title-chasing teams, for dates against Zimbabwe Saints and Chicken Inn. Dynamos will face a Gunners’ side on a seven match-unbeaten run, including five wins, since Moses Chunga took over the show while Highlanders have a tough test in the capital against CAPS United.
DeMbare will feel they can win their next encounter, at home to Saints, and will be looking for a little favour from bitter rivals CAPS United, who travel to FC Platinum that weekend, Motor Action will have a home tie against Chicken Inn and Bosso will take on Blue Ribbon at home.
DeMbare will be presented with another home tie, in Week 24, against Monomotapa and Motor Action will battle CAPS United, FC Platinum will be in the capital for a tough date against unpredictable Blue Ribbon and Bosso will have a duel against Blue Ribbon at Morris Depot.
Week 26 will certainly be decisive with Dynamos at home against Highlanders, FC Platinum away to Gunners at Larfarge and Motor Action away to Shabanie at Maglas. A tough trip to the Colliery for the Glamour Boys will follow on the same weekend when Highlanders will host Gunners, FC Platinum will battle Shabanie in a Zvishavane derby and Motor Action will date the Wild Boys at Callies.
Then, the big battles will erupt
Dynamos vs Motor Action/Monomotapa vs FC Platinum/ Masvingo vs Highlanders, looks pretty appetising, and then the penultimate weekend will bring FC Platinum vs Dynamos/Gunners vs Motor Action and Highlanders vs Monomotapa.
Rahman Gumbo and Joey Antipas have been there before, having won the league championship in the past, while Callisto Pasuwa and Mkhupali Masuku are chasing their maiden crowns as coaches.
The Mighty Bulls, with a defence that has conceded only nine goals, are the best balanced team in the league and their tendency to rise to the big occasion – picking four points against FC Platinum, six against Bosso and three against Dynamos – makes them a safe bet for the crown.
FC Platinum seem to be feeling the heat, after picking just two out of nine points in their last three games, and should they drop more points in Bulawayo this weekend, it’s certain that their heads will fall.
Dynamos have certainly been boosted by the return of Cuthbert Malajila, scorer of two goals in as many matches, with his experience bringing the best out of striker Roderick Mutuma, but question marks remain about their creativity and the central defensive pairing has looked vulnerable.
But they have Washington Arubi, who made another wonder save at a crucial period on Sunday, and a Denver Mukamba coming back close to the irresistible player we saw at the beginning of the season.
Whether they can grind results away from Rufaro and the Vietnam influence – against Gunners (possibly at Larfarge), Masvingo, Hwange and FC Platinum – remains questionable.
Bosso have already lost six games, the highest number in the Top Four, and have also scored the lowest number of goals in that group but, somehow, they have kept it going but the lack of a trusted gunslinger remains their Achilles Heel.
So where do we go from here?
Antipas, who won the league crown with the Mighty Bulls last year, yesterday said it was still an open field and predicted tough games from now onwards until the end of the season.
“We are all playing dangerous teams that are fighting for survival and those that are still in the race for the championship and that means every game is going to be very tight for everybody, right up to the end,” said Antipas.
“It’s never easy to win the championship and you need to remain focused and work hard and there will be a lot of tough battles ahead for everyone in the race. We gained a big point at Mandava, it was a very tough game, before a capacity crowd and I think we did well but we must maintain our focus until the end.”
Last year it all came to the wire with the Mighty Bulls squeezing Dynamos out on goal difference after the two teams ended their campaign on the same number of points. With nine games to go before the end of this season, it’s a similar tale with Motor Action leading FC Platinum on goal difference.
There will certainly be changes, by the time the curtain comes down, points will be dropped and games will be lost and you can feel the pressure building up right now.
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