By Matt Carter
There is little denying the scale of opportunity awaiting both Congo-Brazzaville and DR Congo in this finely poised clash between the neighbouring nations.
To a degree both might be considered opportunistic to have navigated their way this far, although DR Congo’s progress has undoubtedly encapsulated a greater element of fortune. Even before analysing the Leopards relatively unflattering group stage campaign – which saw them fail to win a game and only advance via their two goals scored being superior to that of Cape Verde – it is worth remembering that Florent Ibengé’s side only made it to Equatorial Guinea courtesy of being ranked the best third placed team in qualification.
In some quarters Congo-Brazzaville have been unfairly tarnished with similar accusations of being overly fortunate, yet that the Diables Rouges acquired more group stage points than any other nation should all but quash such a viewpoint. There is no question that under the gaze of the timeless Claude Le Roy Congo-Brazzaville were unscrupulous in their advantage taking of both Gabon and Burkina Faso folding in the face of expectation, yet few can be described as more deserving of their last eight berth.
There is a harrowing danger that Saturday’s meeting in Bata could unravel into a largely attritional affair, considering both the stakes involved and that neither has set the tournament alight in regards to attacking edge. For a relatively limited yet well-drilled Congo-Brazzaville side that was always to be expected, however DR Congo’s lack of bite is somewhat more perplexing.
In spite of their offensive artillery bristling in potential, the Leopards presented a relatively toothless proposition throughout the first round – their toils revolving more around an inability to create chances rather than regularly wasting them. Yannick Bolasie – who was tipped by many to set the tournament alight – has proven especially disappointing.
In contrast to Bolasie, Thievy Bifouma, arguably Congo-Brazzaville’s only source of genuine X factor, has been one of the tournament’s standout performers to date. Since his arrival on the international stage back at the commencement of qualification, Bifouma has provided a robust yet impotent Congo-Brazzaville with a much craved outlet. If they are to advance into the semis another strong showing from the Almeria man will likely be essential.
Amongst the fascinating subplots to this fixture, perhaps the most prominent is Le Roy, who will be gracing his eighth quarter-final in nine tournaments – intriguingly the sole blot on that copy book coming two years ago when his highly fancied DR Congo stumbled into a first hurdle exit. Congo-Brazzaville will hope that both the 66-year-old’s unrivalled nous and his insider knowledge on the Leopards will afford them a pivotal edge.
Once the dominant forces of African football, the Congolese duo have long been shifted into the periphery, particularly Congo-Brazzaville, who in defeating Gabon remarkably claimed a first AFCON victory since 1974. Incidentally, that tournament which saw Congo-Brazzaville advance to the last four, also represented the last time DR Congo lofted the trophy. Saturday’s meeting however offers a golden opportunity to regain a degree of that lost limelight.
Unequivocally, if DR Congo are to claim a first semi-final spot in 17 years then vast improvements are critical – predominantly in an attacking regard. Should the Leopards unearth their bite then the earlier mentioned group stage frustrations will become an erased memory. However, if they continue to exasperate in front of goal then the possible ignominy of falling to their less celebrated neighbours will likely become reality.