MASERU — Matlama midfielder Pali Tšalong returned to inspire the champions to a hard-fought 1-0 win over Bantu yesterday as Tse Putsoa clawed back into the title picture.
The win, Matlama’s second on the bounce, is also of course another confidence boost ahead of their mammoth Caf Champions League tie against Supersport United at the end of the month but it showed the importance of their returning stars after a period of dispute.
Yesterday’s appearance at a well-attended Central Prison was only Tšalong’s third of the season.
The attacking midfielder suffered a knee injury in Matlama’s first game of the season way back in September and only returned in last Sunday’s 1-0 win over Swallows.
His 30th minute winner illustrated what Matlama had been missing, namely poise and precision, as he ghosted into the box to slot in and lift Matlama to sixth place, nine points behind leaders LDF but with a game in hand.
“Pali has qualities that are special. He is able to create space and he also able to find space. Players like him are rare,” Matlama coach Mahao Matete said after the win.
Ultimately it was that one moment of magic that decided what was a lacklustre encounter.
Bantu, coming off a 3-0 defeat to LMPS, did however start off brightly, battling well to grab a foothold of the game.
The visitors from Mafeteng created the better early chances.
First, Mpho Matsinyane forced Liteboho Mokhesi into a smart save before Mosiuoa Boseka flashed a powerful shot wide, all before the half-hour mark.
But with the midfield battle still up for grabs, Tse Putsoa’s Tšoanelo Koetle, Tšalong and another returning player, Lebakeng Lebetsa, began to turn the screws.
With Bantu finding it difficult to open the score sheet, the home side happily made the breakthrough after 30 minutes following a swift move which cut through Bantu’s centre.
Strikers Dlomo Monapathi and Hlomelang Theko were both involved as the champions speedily moved the ball up the field, and with Bantu’s defence dazed, Tšalong as usual arrived late to slot calmly past a sprawling Daniel Jousse.
Jousse was called into action again three minutes later when he spectacularly tipped Theko’s shot over the bar as Matlama threatened to overrun A Matšo Makaota.
However, early in the second half Bantu were given a lifeline when Matlama defender Thapelo Mokhehle was given his marching orders in the 51st minute.
Mokhehle was initially booked for a foul but immediately given a second yellow card for dissent by referee Matheola Makhobalo.
The dismissal changed the complexion of the tie but Bantu were not helped by the resultant stop-start nature of the game and their own indecision.
Either the game was stopped for a foul or A Matšo Matebele fluffed their lines in the final third.
As a result the closest Bantu got to level the scores in the late stages was a Matsinyane header from Tanki Makhele’s cross that went just wide of the post in the 71st minute, much to the frustration of Bantu coach Tšehla Lerotholi.
“The players put themselves under pressure to score because they had a man advantage and that’s not the way to,” he said afterwards.
“I can’t say we are struggling. I just have to go back to the drawing board.”
Matlama have been written off as title contenders but this win showed Tse Putsoa are not yet finished.
“We are on the right track but are still not where I want us to be,” Matete said.
“We have to remind the players of the standards that are expected when you wear the Matlama jersey.
“Every week I am telling them that we have to improve. They are at 75 percent of where I want them to be.”
In Teyateyaneng, Matlama’s rivals Lioli also got maximum points after beating Maduma 4-2.