Moment of truth for Ngezi Platinum as champions come to town
Ngezi Platinum Stars' title credentials face a tough examination against resurgent champions FC Platinum in what is effectively a six-pointer on matchday 16 in the Zimbabwe Premier Soccer League.
Ngezi's prospects ahead of the mammoth showdown have been complicated by the absence of two of their best performers of the campaign in striker Terrence Dzvukamanja and goalkeeper Donovan Bernard.
There is currently little to separate the two teams going into the biggest match of the season, with Ngezi holding on to pole position in the standings solely by virtue of a superior goal difference.
The title rivals, who are generously bankrolled by platinum mining conglomerates, have both registered an identical 13 wins, one draw and one defeat in their 15 league matches to date.
The similarities do not end there, with Ngezi's 1-0 loss to Bulawayo Chiefs coming just over a month after Platinum had capitulated before the same opponents in a 2-0 defeat.
It is in the goal stakes where slight differences can be noted, with the Ngezi strikeforce proving a little sharper on 26 goals, two more than Platinum. The champions have however fared a little better in defence after conceding just four. Ngezi have shipped in five.
Ngezi go into Saturday's battle on the back of a fearsome home record, with current coach Tonderai Ndiraya having lost just twice at the Baobab Stadium since touching base back in June 2016.
This season alone, Ngezi have cloaked up eight consecutive wins on home turf as they emerged as hot favourites for a maiden title.
Yet Saturday's contest comes at a time when the Mhondoro-based upstarts may have just started to wobble. Platinum, by contrast, are finally producing the sort of performances which reflect their true strength.
While Ngezi stumbled at Chiefs on matchday 15, Platinum were cruising to a 4-0 win against derby rivals Shabanie Mine.
It's not just about the three points Ndiraya's team lost in the ill-tempered encounter on Sunday, with striker Clive Augusto and midfielder Xolisani Moyo also having been sent off for dissent and foul play respectively.
Goalkeeper Bernard also received his third yellow card of the season and consequently sits out Saturday's contest. Star forward Dzvukamanja meanwhile is away with the national team at the Cosafa tournament.
The duo's importance to the Ngezi cause cannot be overemphasised, with Dzvukamanja having scored eight times in 13 starts since being handed a false nine role this term. His contributions however go well beyond merely banging them in.
The creative forward also helps the team to retain possession in crowded areas, while his roaming style draws defenders out of position to leave holes for teammates to exploit.
Bernard, for his part, has helped stabilised a hitherto shaky defence after arriving from How Mine during the close season, with his 10 clean sheets making him by far the top performing goalkeeper in the League.
Platinum, on the other hand, will be at full strength, and that means coach Norman Mapeza can count on the rampaging central-midfield partnership of reigning Player of the Year Ronald Chinyengetere and new man Farai Madhananga.
The two have flourished either side of defensive linkman Petros Mhari, with 23-year-old prospect Madhananga bringing some much needed balance to the midfield with his box-to-box qualities.
The former Harare City man netted his fourth of the campaign during the weekend demolition of Shabanie, and could prove a marauding presence once more at the Baobab.
The platinum attacking line, for long regarded as the team's weakest link, has looked a lot more adaptable this term as Mapeza apparently settles on the combination of veterans Rahman Kutsanzira, Mkhokheli Dube and Ali Sadiki.
Platinum have earned themselves a reputation as masters of the passing game, but the downside is that at times they tend to be over elaborate when a direct approach would be more effective.
A draw in this top-of-the-table clash would be the ideal result for the chasing pack, with third-place Highlanders, who are nine points adrift, hosting Bulawayo Chiefs at Barbourfields Stadium.
Chicken Inn, the 2015 Champions who have fallen 14 points off the pace, host newcomers Herentals while CAPS United are also at home to Bulawayo City.
Meanwhile fallen giants Dynamos, whose on-field troubles have only been matched by the chaos currently bedevilling their boardroom, visit Mutare City in the first match following the resignation of long serving chairman Kenny Mubaiwa on Thursday.