The Leopards arrive at AFCON as one of the most stable teams. Florent Ibenge has been steering them, and club side AS Vita Club, for five years. If he doesn’t leave anytime soon his time may just be classified as an attempt at establishing a dictatorship.
In African football five years is an eternity. In that time Ibenge has not only developed a reputation as one of the continent’s finest local coaches but he has also proven, through his exploits with Vita Club, that men can multitask and do it very well.
For years DR Congo have arrived at AFCON as one of the dark horses, but the tag doesn’t seem appropriate this time around given the expansion and recent appearances.
A third place finish in 2015 and a narrow loss to Ghana in the quarter finals in 2017 is an accurate picture of where they have been in the last few years: arguably the best of the rest yet lacking the oomph to topple the best.
Qualification wasn’t easy but it did come from a hard group featuring neighbours Congo, Liberia and Zimbabwe. An uncharacteristic home defeat to Zimbabwe left them needing a nervy final matchday 1-0 victory over Liberia to sneak into AFCON as runners-up in their group.
A steeliness to this team still remains, if you excuse that solitary defeat in qualifying. This is a good team with the coach, the tournament experience and the players to go far in this tournament.
Many will shed a tear at not seeing the missing trio of Dieumerci Mbokani, Jeremy Bokila and Junior Kabananga troubling respected defenders, but DR Congo come into this year’s tournament with upgraded personnel with the potential to make some of those familiar odd-job men forgettable.
Ibenge will be sticking with his favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation. The trio of Ley Matampi in goal, right back Issama Mpeko and centre back Marcel Tisserand remain undisputed in their positions from the last AFCON. There have, however, been two key additions in defence in the form of Galatasaray’s Christian Luyindama and West Ham’s Arthur Masuaku at left back after the retirements of Gabriel Zakuani and Jean Kasusula.
The midfield has a familiar look with Chancel Mbemba and Youssouf Mulumbu likely to play like-for-like holding roles to unleash the attack. Mputu will be expected to link the midfield and attack where Yannick Bolasie and Paul-Jose M’Poku will flank the former Villareal striker Cedric Bakambu. Width is key to Ibenge’s teams but Bakambu and Mputu will pose a different kind of threat through the middle.
Fun, potent attack – It’s their unpredictability in attack, with Mputu feeding them, that will spell danger for opponents and make them fun to watch for neutrals. Although the promising Jackson Muleka was cut from the squad because of he was unable to obtain a visa for their training camp, Bakambu, Yannick Bolasie, M’Poku, Britt Assombalonga, Elia Meschak, Kabongo Kasongo and Jonathan Bolingi give Ibenge a range of options that have performed in some of Europe and Africa’s most challenging competitions and leagues. Some of those are match-winners that a coach can never have enough of in a tournament.
The Achilles’ Heel
Big game mentality – You can frame it how you want to. It could be that they’re not good enough, or perhaps luck hasn’t been on their side. But DR Congo have flattered to deceive when facing some of the continent’s bigger sides in high pressure games, like the semi-final against Ivory Coast four years ago or the quarter-final versus Ghana two years ago. With such good stability in their ranks, they should now be pushing the boundaries and be in a position to challenge the contenders at this tournament.
He’s swimming in dollars in China so it’s easy to forget he exists but Cedric Bakambu is an important part of this DR Congo team and undoubtedly one of the best strikers at the tournament. Without his three goals during qualification they may not have not made it to Egypt. His all-round ability, to fashion chances for himself and especially bring others to play, is also crucial in a forward line that has been guilty of being too raw in the past.
The Hipster’s Choice
It may be the last time we see the mythical Tresor Mputu on such a grand stage internationally, or could it? At 33 he isn’t getting any younger but like a Congolese tribute act to Teddy Sheringham he is showing no signs of slowing down. That is because his game isn’t reliant on pace. His threat outside the D and the timing of his passes is perhaps better than ever. He was instrumental in TP Mazembe’s run to the African Champions League semi-final this season.
Florent Ibenge – Flanked by TP Mazembe head coach Mhayo Kazembe and Young Africans’ charismatic head coach Mwinyi Zahera on the technical bench, the man dubbed ‘the Black Ancelotti’ keeps good company. After years doing a fine job of managing AS Vita Club and the national team, Ibenge finally looks like he’s about to get his lucky break. He has been heavily linked with a move to Morocco side Mouloudia Oujda after the tournament.
It’s not unimaginable that they could go all the way but it’s difficult to imagine them coming against one of the top sides in the tournament and overcoming them.