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Wounded army side ready to march on

MASERU — The last time the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) tasted Premiership success was in 2004.

Looking at the army men’s dominance of local football in the late 90s and after the turn of the century, that’s an absolute age.

That was a period when league crowns were daily bread at Ratjomose barracks, five of them coming in eight seasons.

Now, as the decade peters out, LDF find themselves desperate to end their longest ever championship drought.

A league win would make LDF the most successful side in Lesotho football history. The soldiers are tied with Matlama on eight titles.

The noises emanating from Ratjomose echo both a steely resolve and confidence that this will be the season for LDF to recapture the holy grail of football once again.

And their optimism doesn’t appear far-fetched.

They almost did it last season.

Amid the euphoria of Lioli’s first league victory in a quarter-century it’s easy to forget that LDF were the premier league’s top dogs for most of last season.

From early March to May the army men were top of the pile, at one stage enjoying an eight-point cushion over the eventual champions from Teyateyaneng.

However a disastrous and congested final dash cost LDF — seven points were dropped in five games, including a colossal 3-0 loss at home to Lioli.

Lessons will surely have been learnt — one would have been the need to enlarge the Lioli squad.

At the tail-end of last season, with games many and players few, LDF’s locomotive simply ran out of steam.

Yet the close season has been quiet for the army side.

No major signings have arrived and only a few modest additions have been made.

As LDF’s public relations officer Donny Nthakha says, the club no longer seeks players from outside the army ranks. Instead players are sourced from within, scouted at inter-army games and friendlies.

Still, LDF coach Motheo Mohapi will have a balanced and experienced squad at his disposal — a side that should also retain its traditional solidity.

LDF are often accused of playing ugly football, but it brings results.

And in Mohapi, elevated to head coach this season, the soldiers have one of Lesotho’s finest tactical brains.

In the two weeks of MGC Supa 8 football so far the army men have shown an adept ability to shift and vary formation — 4-4-3 can easily become 3-5-2 or even 3-4-3.

The continuance of Malefetsane Pheko’s career for another season is also crucial.

His versatility, guile and experience remain central to Mohapi’s plans.

At times during pre-season Pheko has been deployed to effective effect in more attacking areas, but it will be in central-defence where his partnership with Mokoena Moahloli will again form the foundation for LDF’s counter-attacking ways.

In midfield Molefe Lekoekoe, a shining star last season, will continue to be diligently supported by Tšepo Keketsi, Lefa Kao, Lesimole Tšiu and Mojela Letsie.

There is also now the added verve of LDF’s younger brigade led by wingback Jankefe Molibeli and striker Mafoafoa Lephoto.

However, the key once again will be the form of talismanic striker Lire Phiri who was not only a clinical taker of chances last season with 13 goals but also provided an outlet on the occasions LDF were under pressure.

His physique and ball-control make him better with his back to goal than the majority of forwards in the league.

It was one of the reasons LDF held possession better last season, while also being able to get themselves out of sticky situations with long punts up-field.

With that efficiency LDF’s goal tally improved from 46 in 2007/08 to 51 in the last season.

The 2008/09 season also saw LDF enjoy a 19-match unbeaten run as well as 11 away victories — the most in the league.

In addition, LDF boasted the best defence — 15 goals conceded — and were the second highest scorers after LCS (66) in the league.

It all means if Mohapi can achieve the improvement he seeks it could well result in a league triumph.

Of course external factors will affect any title charge, one such being the fixture list which is inexplicably yet to be released.

Last year LDF played five consecutive home matches in January which left them facing a run-in packed with away games.

The army side will also face the challenge of the ever-improving defending champions Lioli and the hunger and determination of their state rivals, LCS.

However, if LDF’s key players stay fit then there’s no reason they can’t break their big, yellow duck this season.

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