Under pressure and up against it after losing their first match at the Africa Cup of Nations, the Democratic Republic of Congo needed a hero—and a source of inspiration—when they took to the field to face Egypt on Wednesday.
The odds were firmly stacked against them.
Not only were they up against the hosts, led by Mohamed Salah, buoyed by 75,000 at the Cairo International Stadium, and seeking to put the off-field headlines of the last week behind them, but the Leopards also required a massive improvement after their own underwhelming opener.
While Egypt didn’t need to be at their best to see off Zimbabwe on Friday, the DRC were a shadow of the vibrant side who had entertained fans at the 2015 and 2017 editions, and were unfortunate to have missed out on the World Cup last year, when they fell to Uganda.
Sebastien Desabre’s side were better drilled, hungrier, more clinical, and more composed at the back, despite not boasting the star names of the Central Africans.
While Cedric Bakambu looked dangerous as he pressured the Cranes’ centre-backs early on, Florent Ibenge’s side lacked a discernible strategy, their attacking play was incoherent and lacking direction, and key figures didn’t impress.
Paul-Jose M’Poku, handed the reins in the centre of the park, created little before his 51st-minute withdrawal, while Yannick Bolasie followed 20 minutes later after a sub-par showing on the left flank.
While Arthur Masuaku offered an attacking threat from left-full-back, Elia Meschak appeared overawed by the occasion on the right flank, while Chancel Mbemba was a shadow of his former self in midfield.
Comparing the two teams—on paper—ahead of the opener, perhaps only Denis Onyango and one or two of the Ugandan midfielders—at most—would have made a DRC starting XI.
After the 2-0 defeat in the opener, where the Leopards managed just three shots on target during the duration fo the contest, it was imperative that Ibenge mixed things up in their second match against Egypt.
He made five changes.
Masuaku, bizarrely, was replaced by Glody Muzinga at left-back—an immediate downgrade following the former’s fine display against Uganda—while Jonathan Bolingi replaced Elia on the right flank.
Jacques Maghoma came in for Bolasie on the left, while Wilfried Moke stepped in for Mbemba, who appeared to limp out of the stadium—alongside Bope Bokadi in midfield.
Perhaps only Bolingi, who hit the woodwork during the first half, represented anything close to an improvement.
The fifth change Ibenge made, perhaps his biggest move, and certainly his most significant failure on the day, was to replace M’Poku with Tresor Mputu and give the latter the key playmaking role off Bakambu.
It was only the second match of the Nations Cup, but this already represented a significant throw of the dice by the coach, who clearly hadn’t trusted Mputu with chief creating duties—either as a starter or from the bench—in the opener.
This was Mputu’s first Afcon since 2013, when burned brightly momentarily in tandem with Dieumerci Mbokani, before fizzling out, with the playmaker having missed the peak years of Ibenge’s tenure.
Once upon a team, the attacker had appeared to be African football’s next superstar; Claude Le Roy heralded him as the next Samuel Eto’o, he was shortlisted for the BBC African Footballer of the Year award in 2009, and also claimed the now-defunct Africa-based Player of the Year award.
During his first 12-year tenure with Tout Puissant Mazembe, he captained them to back-to-back Caf Champions Leagues, won a hatful of Congolese titles, and appeared primed for a move to Europe—even trialling with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in 2007.
However, two disciplinary issues punctured his career and halted his momentum.
First, he was banned for 12 months after attacking a referee at the Cecafa Club Cup in 2010, and was later slapped with a two-year ban by Fifa after a contractual dispute with Angolan heavyweights Kabuscorp, the club he joined after European interest dried up.
Having missed three of his would-be peak years, Mputu returned to Mazembe, where he steadily regained his previous form, older now, slower, but still retaining that touch of genius and the capacity to turn a match on its head with a mesmeric dribble or a well-placed set piece.
He’s mentored several of the young up-and-coming prospects in and around the Leopards’ camp over the last year, and returned to the fold himself after rediscovering some of his old form in Lubumbashi.
At 33, the playmaker would have been an unlikely hero for the DRC, considering their wealth of options, although central creative talents are in short supply at this tournament, and the attacking midfielder’s relationship with Bakambu could have been one of the Leopards’ strengths.
Ultimately, however, while Mputu was drafted into the side—at M’Poku’s expense—for the Egypt game, he struggled during the first half and didn’t return out for the second half.
“Mputu was initially injured,” Ibenge told Goal after the match. “He had a knee injury, but recorded and we wanted to add some technical touches to our final passes.
“Our gameplan was to block the flanks and let Mputu operate freely in order to launch our offensive play. It didn’t work out in the first half to we had to substitute him.
“That’s how it goes. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t.”
It was a low-key epitaph for the playmaker, who may well have made his final bow at the tournament, considering his knee problems, the DRC’s plight, and his age.
It was by no means a vintage Mputu performance, there was none of the bold dribbling that had characterised his early career, but he created two openings for Bakambu, and tested Mohamed El-Shenawy with a free kick.
“We’ve played better together,” Bakambu told Goal. “Obviously, it was difficult.