With less than half an hour remaining in their quarter-final duel with Republic of Congo, it seemed DR Congo’s less than flattering AFCON campaign was destined for an ungainly conclusion – having just witnessed their limited yet well drilled neighbours move into an implausible 2-0 lead.
It was at that point however where the fixture’s landscape shifted, as Republic of Congo – who prior to this tournament hadn’t tasted AFCON victory in 40 years -seemingly froze in the face of the momentous accomplishment that was within their grasp.
Within minutes Dieumerci Mbokani had halved the bewildered Red Devils advantage, as a DR Congo suddenly rediscovered an attacking mojo that had been non-existent up to that point.
Thrice more the Leopards would find the net to complete a sequence of four goals in 25 perplexing second-half minutes, in the process booking the most unlikely of semi-final tickets.
There was more than an element of fortune in DR Congo’s stumbled route into the last eight, given that having only qualified as a’lucky loser’, the Congolese failed to taste victory in any of their group games. Remarkably three draws combined with their two goals scored being superior to that of Cape Verde, proved enough to extend the Leopards AFCON adventure.
Having arrived in Equatorial Guinea will an attacking arsenal bustling in potential, DR Congo had been anything but exuberant up until their last chance saloon revival against Republic of Congo.
Their attacking stocks have always been plagued by inconsistencies, yet it wouldn’t be far from the truth to suggest the chances created by DR Congo during the group stage could be counted on a single hand.
It’s difficult to gauge whether the tide has genuinely turned or DR Congo were merely opportunistic against a visibly imploding Republic of Congo. The components are undeniably there in the likes of Yannick Bolasie, Cedric Mabwati and Jeremy Bokila. Yet up until the closing furlongs of their quarter-final success coach Florent Ibenge – who astoundingly balanced qualification with steering AS Vita the CAF Champions League last four – had struggled to a coordinated collective.
For all Republic of Congo’s collapsing under pressure, DR Congo’s revival can also be attributed to the arrival of Neeskens Kebano, who provided the creative spark that ignited the Leopards offensive artillery.
Further to that this was the first occasion in which the powerful yet often sluggish Mbokani has proven a benefit rather than a hindrance – Republic of Congo simply had no answer to his strength in the game’s concluding chapter.
Arguably the pressure has now to large degree lifted from Ibenge’s side, given that, in inevitable football fashion, memories of their group stage falterings have all but been elapsed following the accomplishment of a first last four appearance in 17 years – the excitement of that achievement only being heightened by the manner of DR Congo’s triumph.
A rejuvenated and altogether more mentally tough Ivory Coast – who are clearly buying into Herve Renard’s methods – will present an assignment of vastly differing difficulty. The Leopards will however take heart from a seminal 4-3 triumph in Abidjan during qualification, where the speed of their counter wreaked havoc a creaking Ivorian backline – a defence which despite ‘the Elephants’ clear advancements elsewhere still looks susceptible to exploitation.
That said, DR Congo themselves have defensive frailties that have thus far been papered over rather than concreted away – limited opposition has helped in the masking of those problems, whilst when the Leopard’s flaky defences has been breached the effervescent Robert Kidiaba has been on hand to bail them out.
Ivory Coast’s slick showing in the final third against highly fancied Algeria – which saw Wilfried Bony finally arrive at the tournament party – would however indicate that there will be no hiding such weaknesses on Wednesday evening in Malabo.
Throughout recent memory DR Congo have bubbled under the radar as a potential Continental force, with the Leopards consistently failing to reap the benefits of a virtually unrivalled domestic league. Two years ago promised a new dawn, yet under the gaze of Claude le Roy that only proved another false hope as DR Congo’s highly heralded squad left South Africa with tails firmly between their legs.
There is little denying that in Equatorial Guinea the Leopards have ridden their luck, nonetheless if their second-half demolition of Republic of Congo was indeed a sign of things to come then just maybe Africa’s sleeping giant is at last beginning to stir.
DR Congo harbour unmistakable holes, but if their attacking riches have indeed struck across a winning formula that alone thrusts the Leopards firmly into the reckoning – considering that none of the other three remaining nations are free of significant blemishes themselves.