A coach, in Claude Le Roy, that was (and still is) the living embodiment of best practice for how foreign coaches should conduct themselves on African shores; an African superclub – TP Mazembe – which had won the Champions League twice in three years from 2009-2011; the unveiling of the mythical Tresor Mputu, Africa’s answer to the naturally gifted but somewhat demonic No.10, to a global audience – those were just a few of the reasons why African football anoraks felt DR Congo’s qualification for the 2013 tournament was exactly what the DR ordered.
Yet, despite their classification as pre-tournament dark horses, the Leopards failed to leave lasting imprints. Laboured, myopic and unhinged by bizarre team selections, they failed to penetrate pragmatic opposition in Mali and Niger, and waved goodbye in the group stage.
This time around they have qualified on the virtue of being the best third-placed team. That route may suggest that they got lucky, but their riposte would be that they did so from the group of death, finishing behind Cameroon and Ivory Coast. The highlight was a 4-3 win over Ivory Coast in Abidjan, inflicting the Elephants’ first home defeat in nine years.
Able to pluck domestic-based talent from booming continental giants in AS Vita Club and TP Mazembe, and foreign-based talent such as Dieumerci Mbokani, Yannick Bolasie and Youssouf Mulumbu, the Leopards are glittered with some of the most distinguished players at the upcoming tournament.
However, there are question marks about the team’s equilibrium: there is a feeling that there is too much thrust in attack and too much rust at the back. The players to go on a memorable run are there, if – a big if – there is some tactical balance and consistency.
Florent Ibenge generally favours the vogue 4-2-3-1 formation. The passages of play largely occur on the wings, where Bolasie and the pocket-sized Cedric Mabwati, the Leopards’ two most enigmatic and creative players, reside. Every opportunity is made to get those players into the game, particularly by the like-for-like midfield double pivot of captain Youssouf Mulumbu and Cedric Makiadi. The pace of their offensive players make them most venomous when on the break.
Attacking potential – The word ‘potential’ has been used because their attack is either very good or utterly flat. On a good day (usually when given space), in Mbokani, Bolasie, Mabwati, Jeremy Bokila, Firmin Ndombe Mubele and Junior Kabananga, they have the options, skill and athleticism to cause problems for any side in the tournament.
Out-of-form goalkeeper – DR Congo’s legendary, bum-boogieing custodian Robert Kidiaba, who is set to call time on his international career after the tournament, is in terrible form. He makes routine saves and catches turn into goalscoring opportunities. Defending in general is a problem, with the space in front of the back four particularly an eyesore due to gung-ho midfielders.
Yannick Bolasie – The Crystal Palace winger refused a call up to the squad for AFCON 2013 in order to focus on establishing himself with the South Londoners, but there has been unquestionable commitment to the cause since accepting the second call. Packaged with streetwise-horned razzle-dazzle, Bolasie has been the blockbuster material for a Congolese crowd baying for entertainment in the dizzying, sprawling hullabaloo of the Tata Rapahael Stadium.
The Hipster Choice
Firmin Ndombe Mubele – Has suffered stage fright in the DR Congo jersey thus far, but Mubele is comfortably up there
with the most promising domestic talent that Africa has to offer. Pacey, fleet-footed and an instinctive finisher, the 20-year-old was the joint top scorer in last year’s African Champions League with 6 goals.
Florent Ibenge – The 52-year-old, who left Congo aged 12 before playing in the lower leagues of France, Belgium and Germany, also doubles up as the manager of AS Vita Club, leading them to the final of the African Champion’s League last year. A UEFA-licensed coach and trained economist, he is tactically laxer than predecessor Le Roy, allowing his attackers the carte blanche to express themselves.
Group stage exit – They have the ability to go far but will have to defend better and not be so reliant on the magic of Yannick Bolasie if they’re really going to make a splash.