On a humid night at the Amaan Stadium, in Zanzibar City, last Thursday, Stewart Hall and his Azam FC players celebrated the team’s first trophy since the Englishman took charge of the Tanzanian club in late 2010. Azam were deservedly crowned Mapinduzi Cup champions, following a 3-1 win over Jamhuri of Pemba.

Their victory, in the final, was anything but straightforward. Despite starting the match as firm favorites, Azam found themselves behind after 15 minutes, when Ally Mmanga put the island side ahead. But the tournament’s top scorer, John Bocco, restored parity for Azam, just before half time. In the dying minutes of a thrilling match, an inspired substitution by Hall bringing on live-wire forward, Mrisho Ngassa, who scored two quick-fire goals, in the 89th and 91st minute, to seal a memorable victory for Azam.

Stewart Hall’s side not only highlighted their technical brilliance during the eleven day tournament, but also showcased their newly found tactical understanding and flexibility. Hall and his coaching team, including assistant, Vivek Nagul, have clearly been putting the hours in on the training ground,  following the Tanzanian Premier League (TPL) mid-season break, which started in early November 2011. Azam’s ability to switch from a 4-4-2, to 4-3-3 and 4-1-2-3, without the players showing any sign of discomfort with the new shape, left opposition teams scratching their heads on how best to react to the changing tactical dynamic being played out in front of them.

For Stewart Hall, the two most pleasing aspects of Azam’s performances at the Mapinduzi Cup must have been the improved creative display of his midfield and the goal scoring threat posed by his forward line.

Back in November 2011, I wrote a piece on Azam’s form in the first half of the current TPL season (hyperlink). Despite lying third in the league, five points behind leaders Simba and four points off second placed Yanga, and having the joint meanest defensive record in the TPL, his side had been having serious problems creating goal scoring opportunities and converting them. In thirteen games they had only scored more than one goal in three game and averaged a miserly 0.9 goals per game.

Judging by his side’s performances in the Mapinduzi Cup, however, Azam seem to be remedying these problems. The team’s defensive strategy remains the same: without the ball they are compact, well drilled and patient. In their five Mapinduzi Cup games, Azam only conceded three goals; an average of 0.60 goals conceded per game  – exactly the same average from their final five TPL games. Conversely, they were the Mapinduzi Cup’s top goal scorers, with twelves goals in five games, including impressive 3-0 and 2-0 victories over their main TPL rivals Simba and Yanga, respectively. This improved attacking philosophy saw them increase their average goals per game ratio from 1.20, from their final five TPL game of last year, to a entertaining 2.40 goals per game in the Mapinduzi Cup (see graph below).

The Tanzanian Premier League swings back into action this coming Saturday, with Azam kicking off next Wednesday, 25th, away to African Lyon.

If Azam can carry their Mapinduzi Cup form into the second half of the TPL, Stewart Hall could well add even more silverware to the Azam trophy cabinet. From the reaction of Hall and his players after the final whistle on Thursday, this could be the start of something big for Steward Hall and Azam FC.

Note: for photos from the Mapinduzi Cup final, including a understandably jubilant Stewart Hall, check out the Azam FC’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.321288781244818.75831.131868543520177&type=3