MASERU — What a difference a couple of months makes.
Just two months into the new season and Lioli are wobbling heavier than a punch-drunk boxer.
Last season’s imperious cha-mpions suffered a humbling weekend losing 2-1 to Likhopo in Saturday’s Vodacom Soccer Spectacular quarter-final first leg, before labouring to an uninspiring 0-0 league draw at home with Lerotholi on Sunday.
In short Lioli have lost the aura of invincibility they created in last season’s run-in when Tse Nala won eight straight games to claim their first championship since 1985.
But this season’s vintage is almost unrecognisable. It is a Lioli suddenly lacking direction and inspiration.
On Saturday against Likhopo Lioli were outplayed in midfield something that was unheard of last season. While ball retention is not a problem, it is what Lioli do with their possession that has become a debilitating Achilles Heel.
The quick, slick, incisive movements of April and May are sorely missing, instead Lioli’s build-ups are slow and laborious.
Last season Lioli did not rely on any specific outlet for goals.They were created through the various inventions of their midfield and were shared throughout the team. Indeed Lioli’s top-scorer last term was a winger — Lehlohonolo Mpopo getting 11 of the side’s 50 league goals.
But the departure of playmaker Bushy Moletsane, the spark to last year’s fires, for Botswana has affected the productivity of the team; his replacement Malebanye Ramoabi has so far not been up to the task.
Ramoabi’s skills are not in question but it is his ability to release the ball to better placed team-mates that is. He has been unable to consistently craft openings or as was the case against Likhopo held onto possession too long.
That, in turn, has exposed the lack of creativity of defensive midfielder Thabile Seeker who last season excelled in simply breaking up opposition attacks and providing a platform for Lioli’s creative players.
All those players — Ramoabi, Sello ‘Muso, Lekhotso Morapeli, Lehlohonolo Mpopo, Teboho Nkabane — apart from Moletsane are still there but their form isn’t.
Moletsane’s chief partner in crime last season, ‘Muso, seems to have his mind elsewhere. His darting runs and sharp one-twos are missing. Mpopo has not featured much while Nkabane has looked lightweight and ineffective.
The lack of cutting edge is borne out by a lack of goals.
Lioli have already failed to score in three league games this season. All of last season Tse Nala only failed to find the net twice. But it is not just a failure to score but the inability to work goalkeepers that is a worry — Likhopo keeper Kananelo Makhooane only had one save to make all game.
Those chances that have been created have not been taken. New signing Nthejane Seenyane has made a slow start to life with Lioli and without another new edition Lekhotla Pitso, injured in Lioli’s 1-0 league loss to LMPS three weeks ago, the champions lack a Plan B.
Ultimately the failure to create and score goals heaps pressure on the defence to keep clean sheets.
Lioli’s captain Thabo Masualle is an imperious defender, the best player in Lesotho, Brown Makobe alongside him provides a robust edge and Lioli have conceded three goals in seven games.
But every defence has a weakness and Lioli’s is in the air. Last Saturday the defence coped dismally with Likhopo’s set pieces and the goal in the 1-0 defeat to LMPS came from a corner-kick.
Lioli has been rocked by off-field ill-discipline in the camp and senior players Muso, Makobe and Mohapi Ntobo faced a disciplinary committee yesterday for drunkenness and missing training.
On Monday an emergency meeting between the club’s executive and coaching staff was held. And the side’s communications and marketing manager Moeketsi Pitso revealed that Lioli would soon advertise for the position of head coach.
Lioli’s troubles have allowed others to confidently impose themselves on their territory. At Pitso Ground on Sunday perennial contenders LDF showed their credentials beating Matlama 1-0 and ending Tse Putsoa’s unbeaten run.
In the process the army side, who had a player sent off, elbowed Matlama off the top spot thanks to Molefe Lekoekoe’s late goal.
Does that then make the always-efficient LDF favourites for the title?
“I won’t agree with that,” LDF spokesperson Donny Ntakha says.
“Right now there is nothing to write home about; we can only talk after the second round.”
“I am surprised with the way LCS have started. LCS is material, you can’t just rule Lioli out after just one loss there is still a long way to go.”
Ntakha believes LCS and Lioli will be firmly in the title picture come next May.
Without a doubt it is still very early in this open season.
Butha-Buthe Roses for example find themselves just four points off the safety of 12th place with a game in hand after a 1-0 home win over Nyenye Rovers on Sunday after looking like dead certs for relegation two weeks ago.
LCS, a crisis team a week ago, will be two points off the top of the Premiership if they win their game in hand after thumping Swallows 5-0 at the Central Prison. Conversely Joy who were fifth last week have slipped down to 11th place after losing 1-0 to LMPS on Sunday.
There is still a long way to go. Lioli remain just three points off the top with a game in hand but the champions will hope they find the solutions to their problems sooner rather than later.
Hard times: Are things falling apart for Lioli?
MASERU — What a difference a couple of months makes.