Nyasa Big Bullets have become the first team to reach the Airtel Top 8 Cup final following a convincing 3-1 win over Silver Strikers at Kamuzu Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The victory means the defending champions are in for their third shot at the title in five years, having reached the finals in 2018, 2021 and now the 2022 edition.
This was the second meeting between the two teams within a year after they faced off in the last year’s edition won by The People’s Team.
Bullets started more slowly than their usual high-pressing football but their opponents also failed to take off as they played too deep in their half to avoid a repeat of what happened when they conceded three goals to their opposition inside the opening 23 minutes in the TNM Super League in May.
Maule’s first attempt at goal came in the 12th minute when Chimwemwe Idana played through Lanjesi Nkhoma on the left flank and the winger released a powerful drive which was stopped by the Bankers’ goalkeeper Emmas Nyirenda.
The midfield was the most active area as the two teams battled for possession through Chikondi Kamanga and Idana and as a result, only a few chances were created by both sides.
But Bullets had a brilliant breakthrough in the 21st minute through wingback Gomezgani Chirwa, who scored one of the most beautiful goals in the competition to put Kalisto Pasuwa’s men ahead.
The Malawi international did not even need more time to put the ball into the net, his instincts ordering him to go for the kill, assuring him it was worth the try from his position and propelling him to shoot from his angle.
It was an absolute beauty, the ball rising like a laser-guided missile from 30 yards out, arrowing towards the keeper’s right-hand post, the energy generated by the sweet contact powering it past Nyirenda into the top corner, 1-0.
With half an hour played, the heavens opened up with a heavy downpour which made the turf very wet and this restricted the two teams from playing high-pressing football.
But Bullets had another opportunity in the 35th minute through a freekick which was taken by Patrick Mwaungulu whose attempt went straight at Nyirenda, who, despite his age, was commanding his area of defence with maturity in his first game against The People’s Team.
After withstanding the storm from the hosts, Leo Mpulura’s men pushed ahead with purpose from the left-hand side of the field with Zebron Kalima and Patrick Macheso heavily involved with a good exchange of passes to release Chawanangwa Kaonga, who saw his shot going wide of Clever Mkungula’s right-hand post.
With five minutes left to play in the opening half, Mpulura brought in Uchizi Vunga for Levison Maganizo to try to improve his attacking prowess in search of an equalizer which looked very difficult to come by as Bullets defended with everything to avoid any possible comeback from the Area 47 men and it ended 1-0 in favour of the hosts at the break.
After the recess, the two teams slowed down as they had to deal with a wet pitch and the focus was on being cautious to avoid committing errors emanating from the waterlogged surface.
The Bankers had a chance to level in the 42nd minute when referee Newton Nyirenda awarded them a freekick just a few meters away from the penalty box, however, Mark Fodya hit the wall and the ball landed straight at Kamanga who made a first-time connection at goal only to be denied by Mkungula.
At the other end, Precious Sambani had his long-range volley well saved by Nyirenda after his defence was torn apart by Ernest Petro who was having a day to remember with a fantastic showing.
The match was put beyond Silver’s reach in the 55th minute when a long ball from Sambani into the box was missed by Nyirenda and allowed Hassan Kajoke to flick it to Petro who calmly controlled it before hitting the back of the net, 2-0.
Mpulura had to make a double substitution in the 62nd minute when he brought in the fresh legs of Stain Davie and Duncan Nyoni for Macheso and Kalima in an attempt to increase the attacking options to try to get something out of the match which, in that particular time, seemed to slip away from them.
The substitutes brought some rhythm for the Bankers, who almost pulled one back in the 64th minute when Innocent Shema’s cross inside Bullets’ penalty box was missed by Kesten Simbi and Mkungula before finding Nyoni who was unmarked but his poorly taken volley hit Nickson Nyasulu before it was cleared into safety by Frank Willard.
But the visitors were able to find the back of the net in the 66th minute through Davie.
A long ball from Kamanga caught Simbi and Sambani napping in the line of duty as the two defenders ball watched thinking it was bound to go out, but Shema had already made a quick run into the box and made a first-time connection at goal only to hit the upright and found the well-placed Davie who made a simple finish, 2-1.
The goal meant the next 24 minutes were interesting and very crucial to Bullets as their opponents dominated possession and they should have had an equalizer moments later when Davie’s shot from a corner kick was blocked by Nyasulu.
Pasuwa then introduced Babatunde Adepoju and Stanley Billiat for Nkhoma and Kajoke in the 65th minute to try to slow down the pace of the visitors who were in complete control of the match.
But Mpulura’s hopes of making a comeback suffered a huge blow in the 71st minute when a long clearance from Bullets’ defence caught Maxwell Paipi and Hardy Ng’andu napping, allowing Mwaungulu to beat an offside trap into the penalty box before calmly slotting the ball into the net, 3-1.
The People’s Team almost scored a fourth goal in the 75th minute when the visitors failed to deal with Mwaungulu’s well-taken corner kick and the ball found Sambani who pounced at goal only to be denied by Nyirenda who made a brilliant save.
With ten minutes left to play, John Lanjesi and Henry Kabichi came on for Mwaungulu and Idana as Pasuwa went for a defensive game in the closing minutes of the second period.
It was now dancing time for Bullets, killing time to frustrate their opponents and it was the last decisive moment that proved to be another top performance from Maule as they advanced to their second cup final in 2022 after winning the FDH Bank Cup in October.
The People’s Team will play the winner between Blue Eagles and Mighty Mukuru Wanderers who are playing in the last semi-final tie on Sunday at the same Kamuzu Stadium.