Seemingly eliminated at the hands of Rwanda back in July, an inconceivable course of events has seen Claude le Roy’s Congo move to a position from which a first AFCON appearance in 14 years is now a genuine possibility.
Handed a route back courtesy of Rwanda’s fielding of an ineligible player, the Congolese have thus far grasped their second chance – initially taking advantage of a vulnerable Nigeria to sentence the Super Eagles to a first home defeat in 33 years, before following up that momentous result with a routine success over Sudan in Ponte-Noire.
Those twin victories have seen the Red Devils rise to the Group A apex, with this weekend’s visit of South Africa signifying the opportunity for Congo to move within touching distance of qualification – the consensus being that ten points would virtually assure a spot in Morocco.
Originally the impending double header between the sides was characterised as critical in the squabble for the second qualification birth, yet Nigeria’s ongoing issues have changed the group’s complexion. That said it would be futile for either side to bank on continual Nigerian faltering – particularly with the defending champions facing off twice against rock bottom Sudan – thus the connotations attached to both the game in Ponte-Noire and the reverse fixture in Polokwane should not be downplayed.
South Africa themselves enter the contest in relatively buoyant mood, with Shakes Mashaba’s rein beginning with a clinical win in Sudan before Bafana Bafana held Nigeria to a goalless draw in Cape Town.
The trip to Ponte-Noire however arguably represents Mashaba’s largely inexperienced squad’s stiffest assignment to date, given Congo have conceded just once in their last six competitive fixtures at the Stade Municipal Stadium – it will therefore be imperative South Africa do not fall behind given in the face of such a formidable backline turning the tide would represent an arduous task. Any repeat of the sluggish start Bafana Bafana showcased in Khartoum could mean curtains for Mashaba’s men.
Congo do have previous for spurning similar opportunities, considering they failed to negotiate their second round World Cup qualification group in spite of acquiring maximum points from their opening three fixtures – aspirations will be that Le Roy’s hub of experience can negate the possibility of such demons rearing their head once more.
South Africa’s recent AFCON qualification history might be quite as baron as their Saturday afternoon opponents, yet having not qualified for a tournament outright since 2008 an expectant public are growing tired of persistent failings.
The stakes in Ponte-Noire are unquestionably high given a positive result for either side would move them to the brink of qualification – with that in mind the fixture might just hinge on who best handles the occasion.
By Matt Carter (@Matt432)