By Maher Mezahi
The old aphorism states that the most experienced warriors are best equipped for the biggest battles. The mini-truth certainly holds for Congo, who ride into Equatorial Guinea with Africa’s most experienced coach: Claude Le Roy. The 66 year-old French warhorse has been in charge at seven Cup of Nations tournaments, and has been a part of a coaching staff for eight of them.
Le Roy won the Cup of Nations in 1988 with Cameroon, just two years after he finished runner-up in his first tournament with the Indomitable Lions. But his campaign with Congo, the fifth African national team he has coached, did not start off as well. They were drawn with minnows Rwanda in the second round of qualifying, and in Kigali, Le Roy’s men bowed out in a penalty shootout. The Red Devils had crashed out of qualifiers before they had begun.
However, in Africa, the recurring issue of playing ineligible players seems alive and well, as Rwandan striker Daddy Birori was illegally fielded, so Congo and Le Roy advanced on tapis-vert. The Central Africans were drawn in Group A, where they would advance behind South Africa, at the expense of Sudan and the continental champions Nigeria.
Three of the four sides in Group A know each other well, having been grouped together during 2014 World Cup Qualifying. Burkina Faso advanced then, and both they and the Panthers of Gabon still have the individualities to hurt a fragile Congolese defence. The familiarity ends with Gabon and Burkina Faso though, as it is virtually impossible trying to predict how Equatorial Guinea will line-up. The hosts coaching appointments and squad call-ups have been delayed to just a few weeks before the competition begins, rendering the task of scouting nearly impossible.
In 2014 World Cup Qualifying, Congo were known for their resolute defence, scratching through a tough Group E with gritty 1-0 results in Brazzaville. But it was away, in Nigeria, that the Red Devils announced themselves to the continent in September. To put into context the magnitude of Congo’s 2-3 victory in Calabar, our readers must recall that the Super Eagles had not lost in Calabar in 34 years. Thievy Bifouma was particularly impressive in the victory, scoring two, and notching an assist.
Mirroring the complementary relationship in attack is a harmonious central midfield partnership. Delvin N’Dinga holds the keys in midfield. Striding past him is Stade Reims’ Prince Oniangue, who scores many goals with perfectly timed runs and his aerial prowess. Unfortunately for Le Roy, the base of Congo’s spine is not as solid.
Nevertheless LeRoy’s 4-4-2 is uniform entity; very rarely is the defence left to fend for its own. Supplementing the Congolese stars playing in Europe is a strong base of domestic players from super-club AC Leopards. Left-back Dimitri Bissiki, the aforementioned Ngounga, winger-cum-forward Cezair Gandze add to the team chemistry on and off the pitch.
Strike partnership – Bifouma’s direct style contrasts nicely with CFR Cluj strike partner Ferebory Dore, who couples him in attack. Doré is a 6’4 targetman who gracefully holds the ball up, but has acquired a deft touch to accompany his incredible height. Congo’s frontmen should be credited with adding a goalscoring dimension to the Red Devils, which allows for a counterattacking tactic if needed.
Centre-halves – The centre-half partnership of Boris Ngounga Moubhio and Igor Nganga repeatedly struggled to shackle the likes of Ike Uche, and Tokelo Rantie. The pair may struggle if quick strikers have the space to run at the Congolese defence.
Thievy Bifouma – The arrival of the striker lifted Congo and his impact was felt from the get-go. The Almeria forward scored two goals in Nigeria and skinned Godfrey Oboabona to assist Prince Oniangue in scoring a third. The win gave Congo a crucial headstart in Group A and dispatched early warning signals to Group A opposition that Le Roy’s men are for real.
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Delvin N’Dinga – N;Dinga is Congo’s calm in the storm. He keeps a cool head, and dictates tempo, controlling play in midfield. His positional discipline will be especially important in light of Oniangue’s tendency to burst forward, and the tender weakness that is Le Roy’s centre-half pair.
Claude Le Roy – Le Roy has the trust of his players. Midfielder Prince Oniangue, recently spoke to BBC Sport, saying ‘Having a coach like Claude Le Roy helps a lot. He’s going for his eight Nations Cup appearance and that brings a lot to the team.’ Burkina Faso and Gabon will be the bookies’ favourites, but with the well-decorated Le Roy at the helm, it would be foolish to write off Congo’s chances in January.
Group stage exit – The intrepid Red Devils will fight admirably, but should be overcome by the sheer quality of Gabon and Burkina Faso. If Congo are to advance, they will necessarily play stingy shut-down defence.