By Luciah Phahla in Maseru,
The new Vodacom Premier League season kicks off this Saturday with champions Bantu set to begin their title defence against newly-promoted Sefotha-fotha at Setsoto Stadium.
The match will form part of a mouth-watering 2017/18 opening dish with Matlama taking on Liphakoe at 13:00 in the first match of the campaign.
As the warm up to the new campaign continues, we down the players to watch this term.
The players highlighted are by no means the only ones expected to make an impression this season. However, more than most, their individual success or failure could have a direct impact on their teams’ hopes.
Nzenze Nkulu (Matlama)
The Congolese striker finally sealed his long-drawn-out transfer to Matlama from Bantu last week. Nkulu fills a position of need for ‘Tse Putsoa’ who only scored 37 goals in the league last season as they finished in a lowly eighth place.
Amongst last season’s top eight sides, only Sky Battalion, Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) and Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) scored fewer goals than Matlama.
After Nkulu’s goal-scoring exploits last season, ‘Tse Putsoa’ fans are excitedly hoping he will fix their gun-shy attack.
Last season Nkulu spent a successful year on loan at Linare scoring 17 of the Leribe side’s total of 35 goals. Only LDF’s Mojela Letsie with 18 goals scored more than Nkulu and the Congolese brings a proven goal-scoring threat to Pitso Ground.
Last season Matlama were criticised for drawing matches they should have won and the belief at the club is Nkulu’s firepower will bring an end to last term’s hiccups.
Quick and sharp in the box, Nkulu found the net 11 times in the first half of last season and added seven more in the second round as he almost single-handedly saved Linare from relegation with his goals.
With so much expected from him and pressure on Matlama to end a six-year trophy drought, Nkulu is definitely one player to watch this season.
Hlompho Kalake (Bantu)
Kalake was a standout performer last season as Bantu triumphed over rivals Lioli in a thrilling Vodacom Premier League title race.
His sterling performances were pivotal in helping ‘A Matšo Matebele’ win a title that had eluded them for three years.
Kalake’s exploits were all the more impressive considering Bantu’s disastrous campaign the year before when the Mafeteng giants finished seventh.
Last season Kalake led all midfielders in the league with 11 goals and, perhaps even more impressive, was his consistency. The playmaker rarely missed a game for club or country last term and more often than not was the most influential player on the pitch.
Unsurprisingly, Kalake was the big winner at Bantu’s end of year awards beating captain Thapelo Mokhehle to the player of the season award and winning the club’s golden boot award after scoring 13 goals in all competitions.
Kalake also walked away with the first Futbolars Club player of the season award in June. Now the question is whether Kalake can repeat last season’s sensational performance. Bantu are not a one man team, but Kalake’s success or failure will affect the club this season.
Tšoanelo Koetle (Lioli)
It could be debated whether Koetle or Jerry Kamela is more important to Lioli. However, using last season as a reference, it is clear ‘Tse Nala’ are not the same team without Koetle.
Last October and November Kamela struggled with injuries and started several games from the bench.
However, ‘Tse Nala’ did not seem to skip a beat in Kamela’s absence compared to their obvious struggles without Koetle, most notably in Lioli’s pivotal 2-1 league loss to Bantu in March.
Koetle is the commander-in-chief in the Teyateyaneng giants’ midfield and a fan favourite. He breaks opposition attacks and starts Lioli’s moves while perfectly balancing his duties in the middle of the park.
Lioli and Bantu are set for another cutthroat battle for supremacy this season and, as is often the case, the team with the best midfield will have a head-start in the race for championship glory.
‘Tse Nala’ will hope their midfield cornerstone Koetle will remain injury-free this season.