By Robson Sharuko
For about an hour yesterday, CAPS United had one hand on the Castle Lager Premier League trophy, but FC Platinum then found a way to banish their ghosts of Week 29 at Mandava to take this riveting title race into the final day of the season.
When Simba Nhivi powered the Green Machine into a first-half lead at the National Sports Stadium yesterday, it was still goalless at Mandava where the home fans had reason to fear the worst as Highlanders had dominated the game, with the hosts seemingly struggling to deal with the punishing weight of expectations on their shoulders.
CAPS United, needing victory against in-form Ngezi Platinum Stars and also praying for FC Platinum to drop points in their showdown against Bosso, to win their first league championship in 11 years, appeared well on course by the time the two matches in Harare and Zvishavane went to the break.
A wave of grand expectations was sweeping across the giant stadium, hosting the biggest number of CAPS United fans to attend a league match featuring their beloved Green Machine this season, and there was just 45 minutes between them and the Promised Land with some having already started to party.
After all, they said, Bosso never lose at Mandava and, judging by the way the first half had unfolded in Zvishavane, they had a right to believe that it was now just a matter of 45 minutes before they exploded in celebrating their finest hour, in more than a decade, with a game to spare in the championship race.
When the second half got underway, time could not fly any faster for the impatient Green Machine army.
And, for a quarter-of-an-hour after the interval, their dream was still alive, with their men comfortably dealing with the threat posed by the Chibuku Super Cup winners, while FC Platinum were still to score in a game where even a draw would not be enough for them should CAPS United win.
Some had even started to ask whether their men would be presented with their championship trophy yesterday, to parade it before their fans, and the presence of Delta Beverages marketing director Maxen Karombo in the VVIP Lounge of the National Sports Stadium appeared to suggest that the presentation party would be held after the match.
But, then, FC Platinum scored at Mandava.
Gerald Takwara, back in the team after somehow escaping with his life from a tragic car crash a few weeks ago, doesn’t score many goals for the Zvishavane miners.
After all, his primary job is to provide a defensive shield to his defenders.
But when FC Platinum won a corner, big hitters like Takwara were afforded the chance to reinforce the attack and he was at the right place, and right time, to head home the opener for his side.
Cue in the celebrations in Zvishavane!
Cue in the disappointment at the giant stadium!
Of course, there was still half-an-hour to play and anything could happen, not only at Mandava but also at the National Sports Stadium — Bosso could hit back and grab an equaliser, which would alter the script once again, or Ngezi Platinum Stars, who played with a lot of spirit in that second half, could find a goal that could change everything.
Farai Jere, the CAPS United owner, was clearly sitting on the edge of his seat, tormented by the events that were unfolding both in Harare and Zvishavane and the noise, from the stands at the National Sports Stadium, had considerably lost some of the volume that had characterised the party for an hour.
The Green Machine players, also, appeared to have got the news and were now content on holding to their advantage, first, than plunge into a risky punch-for-punch battle against their opponents who didn’t carry the kind of pressure which was now on the shoulders of the CAPS United men.
Coach Lloyd Chitembwe also appeared to be getting more animated, cutting a lonely figure in his technical area, while Ngezi Platinum Stars turned on the power.
But there is a reason why CAPS United haven’t lost a league match at the National Sports Stadium, in about 14 months under Chitembwe’s guidance, and with Dennis Dauda, once again a pillar of strength in the heart of defence, they appeared well set to repel the Ngezi Platinum offensive.
The problem is that FC Platinum scored again, getting the insurance goal and heaping more pressure on Makepekepe, but the pressure could have been eased considerably had Nhivi scored his second, after finding space inside the box to shoot at the exposed ‘keeper.
But, this time, the ‘keeper stretched his right leg to turn the ball away and the pressure was back with the Green Machine.
You could even feel for their long-suffering fans and even when Hardlife Zvirekwi swung a ball from a corner, which clearly flew over the bar, there was a sudden explosion of celebrations, inside the giant stadium, with many of the supporters — dazed by pressure they barely could see clearly — believing the ball had gone in.
Football, this beautiful game, it can also be very, very cruel.
Then, there was another twist, a ball pumped into the box appeared to be hitting Ronald Pfumbidzai’s arm, in a crowd of players, and the visitors appealed for a penalty in animated fashion.
The giant stadium held its breath.
Surely, not now, not this late, not in this cruel fashion, they appeared to say, while leaving themselves at the mercy of the referee who provided the cheer, to their spirits, when he turned down the animated appeals.
The visitors felt hard done by and, probably, they had a case.
But, then, CAPS United can also point to an incident when the referee waved play on, when the ball fell to Nhivi for his second chance, which, on another day, could have been given as a penalty to the hosts or the number of times when their attacks were disrupted by questionable decisions to give them fouls when an advantage could have reaped them huge rewards.
At the end, FC Platinum scored again, CAPS held on, and the race will have to be decided on the final weekend when they are both on the road with the miners in Bulawayo, against Tsholotsho, while the Green Machine are in Gweru for a date against Chapungu.
For the sixth time, in the last seven seasons, this race will be decided on the final weekend and, for the fifth time in the past six years, it could be decided by goal difference.
The nation can hardly wait. The Herald