Lioli goalie: humble yet unyielding

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TEYATEYANENG — Through the course of a long, winding season every team will experience a blip — a dip in form when nothing seems to go according to plan, a period when the whole world seems to be against you.

In April Lioli had that blip — a three-game spell where they couldn’t buy a win, drawing 0-0 against LMPS before further frustrating 1-1 stalemates against Linare and Rovers.

In the process Lioli not only dropped six crucial points, but slid to third place in the Premier League — seven points behind LDF. 

More significantly Lioli at that stage seemed to have dropped out of the championship race.

Harsh questions were asked of Lioli’s tactics and spirit.

Teyateyaneng was engulfed in disbelief and disappointment.

Maseru smiled. The championship appeared to be staying where it had been all decade.

Fast-forward by just a month and things couldn’t be more different.

“We never lost hope,” says Lioli goalkeeper Mohau Kuenane. “We just kept on playing and focused on our job.”

Kuenane was speaking to the Lesotho Times after Lioli’s 2-0 defeat of Lerotholi had seen them go top of the Premier League for the first time since the end of February, a point clear of LDF with just two games left to play.

The destiny of the title is firmly in their own hands.

One constant during Lioli’s fall and rise has been a solid defence.

The three draws aside, Lioli have enjoyed their most consistent defensive run of the season, conceding just four goals in nine games during a period that includes a four-match winning streak.

In that period Kuenane has been a constant feature in the starting XI.

Since Lioli’s visit to Mphatlalatsane in mid-March, Lioli are unbeaten. Since then Kuenane has played every game.

In that period Kuenane has kept five clean sheets including in Lioli’s 3-0 win over LDF two weeks ago.

“We have played well but it hasn’t just been up to me,” he says modestly. “The whole defence has contributed.”

It’s typical of an unassuming player who just under two years ago was plying his trade in the first division.

“I joined Lioli from Naughty Boys at the end of 2007,” Kuenane says. “I joined because the team needed me. They saw me playing for Naughty Boys and they approached me.”

It was a big step up for the 25-year-old goalkeeper, moving from Maqalika to one of Lesotho’s biggest sides to face the likes of Lire Phiri and Thabane Rankara.

“It wasn’t that easy. I had games where I didn’t play well. I used to panic,” he says.

Standing in his way was Pompo Shoai, at the time Lioli’s first-choice goalkeeper.

A long-term wrist injury also hampered his progress.

But Kuenane credits then Lioli gaffer and now Likuena assistant coach Leslie Notsi for sticking with him.

“He was a good coach and he gave me a chance to play for a big team like Lioli,” he says. “I had some bad moments but he was helpful to me.”

A goalkeeper’s existence is a perilous one — a critical save you are a hero and one mistake and you are a villain. It’s something Kuenane knows all too well.

Lioli finished fifth last season and it was Kuenane’s mistake in the final game of the season that cost the team a spot in the top four.

At the beginning of the season Lioli won the Imperial Top 8, their first trophy in 22 years.

The beginning of the season saw a massive clearout at Lioli.

In came Bushy Moletsane and, more importantly to Kuenane, goalkeeper Essaih Mosala.

“We used to rotate — me and Essaih,” he says.

“We told ourselves that we would win the league this season.”

The biggest change has been the start Lioli made to the season.

They were unbeaten going into the December break — seven wins including a 3-0 win over Linare in nine games putting them top of the league.

In that run they conceded just four goals but Kuenane played just once.

“I remained focused on the game and working hard,” he says.

Lioli topped the league until February.

Lioli’s little blip coincided with Halemakale Mahlaha’s arrival as technical advisor — a position that has apparently evolved into a co-coach role with Mosholi Mokhothu.

But Kuenane says the coaching arrangement was and is no problem.

“There has been no problem. When one is not there the other takes charge of the training session but they liaise when they are together,” he says.

Mosala’s foot injury in the meantime allowed Kuenane to take over the number one jersey full time.

That consistency has led to familiarity.

“The communication within the defence has improved . . . we understand each other. It has been a great team effort,” Kuenane says.

His strengths are dealing with high balls and he has earned his first call-up to the national team this week.

With the Likuena goalkeeping position far from nailed down, the young goalminder hopes to be a permanent feature in the national team.

“It is my aim,” Kuenane says of his national team ambitions.

But in the meantime Lioli have two games to clinch their first title in 24 years.

“Football is football and you never know what can happen. All we have to do is to work hard,” he says.

Next season Mosala will be back to contest for the number-one jersey.

“As long as he is playing I’m happy,” Kuenane says.

A Premier League winner’s medal would no doubt make Lioli’s unyielding goalkeeper happier.

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