As the battle for honour and glory in the Castel Challenge Cup reaches a climax on Saturday between Lilongwe giants Silver Strikers and quadruple chasers Blantyre’s FCB Nyasa Bullets, the road to this stage has been long and winding but at the same time exciting for the two sides.
Unlike in other cup competitions where elite league sides are seeded to a later stage, the Castel Challenge Cup wanted all the teams to compete at an equal footing.
That is why 16 TNM Super League clubs had to start from the round of 64 alongside 17 regional teams and 31 district sides in the race to the grand finale.
Silver, were lucky as they did not have to start from round of 64 following a bye during the draw.
They joined the party in the round of 32 and went on to boot out Namitete based St Gabriel Medicals Zitha FC 5-0.
In the round of 16, the bankers got former TNM Super League side Ekwendeni United and the Bankers mercilessly punished the Mzimba district outfit 7-1.
But for Bullets, the road to the quarter-finals started against Mangochi-based non-leaguers Lipulumundu Stars in round of 64.
The midweek fixture played on November 1 at Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre, came at a time when Bullets were preoccupied with a backlog of TNM Super League fixtures.
Bullets coach Kallisto Pasuwa rested most of his key players, perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming Blantyre derby against rivals Mighty Mukuru Wanderers in the league.
In had to take second half goals from Thomson Magombo and Chawanangwa Gumbo for Bullets to book a place in the round of 32.
Just like the round of 64, Bullets welcomed non-leaguers Soche Socials at Kamuzu Stadium and made it to the round of 16 after a 4-2 victory over the stubborn social team.
Chinedu Okafor opened the score line for Bullets in the sixth minute before Peter Banda doubled the lead 31st minute later.
But Soche Socials pulled one back, in the 54th minute after the break through Precious Chadza.
Sensing danger, Pasuwa, who had again rested his stars introduced Hassan Kajoke and Maxwell Gasten Phodo who quickly restored Bullets two-goal lead.
However, the rookies again reduced the deficit to 4-2 through Chimwemwe Mberenga on the 86th minute.
After facing non-leaguers in the first two rounds, Bullets found themselves in a duel against Civil Service United at Kamuzu Stadium again in round of 16.
With memories of how Civil made Bullets sweated blood to make it to the Airtel Top 8 semi-finals when the match ended 3-2 on aggregate, albeit after a 2-0 win at Civo Stadium and a 2-1 loss at Kamuzu Stadium for the People’s Team, Pasuwa confessed that he anticipated another tricky match.
But contrary to this prediction, come match day December 9, Civil did not offer any resistance to Bullets as the People’s Team cruised to a 3-0 victory.
Featuring a full squad, Bullets took the lead through Lanjesi Nkhoma who later turned into a provider, setting up Phodo to score his team’s second in the 66th minute before Kajoke put the game beyond Civil’s reach with the third.
By this time rivals Mighty Mukuru Wanderers were already in the quarter-finals after victories over Namitete FC, Friends of Mulanje Orphans, Red Lions, Moyale Barracks and Katete Rangers.
The Nomads went on to boot out Moyale Barracks in the quarter-finals and a half-time draw confirmed that in the semis, they would face the winner between Bullets and Ekwendeni Hammers while Silver would meet Bangwe All Stars.
Bangwe made it to last four after beating the Salima-based Malawi Defence Force outfit Mafco 1-0 to wing into the round of 16 before punching a ticket to the quarter-finals after beating Chitipa United 3-4 on post-match penalties following a goalless deadlock.
For Bullets it was also another walkover in the quarter-finals as they continued to ravage opponents on their path.
This time, Bullets netted four through Kajoke brace, Mwaungulu and Precious Sambani with no response from their fellow TNM Super Leageu outfit.
Silver on the other hand saw off Blue Eagles 4-2 in a six-goal thriller at Nankhaka Stadium.
But the match proved Silver’s toughest in the campaign as they came from behind to knock out their Area 30 neighbours.
Eagles opened the six-goal thriller through Blessings Malemia but Silver responded quickly through Patrick Macheso before Emmanuel Kaunga gave them the lead.
However, the battle was far from over as MacDonald Lameck levelled for Eagles.
It had to take Innocent Shema and Patrick Macheso second half goals for The Bankers to secure a place in the semis.
The last four was finally confirmed as Bullets booked a tie against the Nomads in a Blantyre derby while Silver were to face Bangwe All Stars.
Silver were the first to make it to the final on December 23 after a 2-0 triumph at Kamuzu Stadium with goals from Chimwemwe Idana and golden boot chaser Macheso who has five goals.
The Bankers took the lead in the 23rd minute when Idana slotted home a ball he exchanged well with Macheso who then netted his won in the 73rd minute.
Bullets followed shortly, on December 24 after dispatching arch rivals Wanderers 4-2 on post-match penalties at the same venue following one-all stalemate in regulation time.
The Nomads had to come from behind to cancel Bullets’ lead from Mwaungulu’s 31st minute strike through substitute Christopher Kumwembe in the 46th minute.
In post-match penalties, Wanderers missed two spot kicks through captain Stanley Sanudi and Kumwembe while Peter Cholopi and Francisco ANkonda converted theirs.
Bullets on the other hand, converted theirs through Yamikani Fodya, Kajoke, Clyde Seneji and Precious Phiri who netted the decisive spot kick.