Sunday, February 7, 2016 7:40 am
The Democratic Republic of Congo aim to become the first side to lift the African Nations Championship twice when they play Mali in the final in Rwanda on Sunday.
The match, taking off at 5.30 pm, Nigerian time, brings an intriguing climax to the three-week long tournament organised by the African Football Confederation (CAF) and reserved for players who play their football in national leagues.
The DR Congo won the maiden tournament in the Ivory Coast in 2009 when they defeated Ghana 2-0 in the final, and Florent Ibenge’s side has fought hard to get back to the final after being knocked out in the quarters in the last two tournaments in Sudan (2011) and in South Africa in 2014. They needed extra-time goals to overcome hosts Rwanda in the last eight and dumped out hard-fighting Guinea 5-4 on penalties in the semis.
Goalkeeper Ley Matampi, who plays for one of the DR Congo’s most successful clubs, DR Motema Pembe was the star of the two matches. He saved two penalties against Guinea, earning the man of the match accolade but played down his own contribution, saying the side’s success was a collectively responsibility.
“DR Congo are not the favourites yet,” said Matampi. “We shall only be favourites after taking the trophy when the final game ends against Mali.”
For coach Ibenge, DR Congo’s chances against Mali are 50-50.
“But we will play with a will to win”, he told CafOnline.
” I was not surprised by Mali reaching the final, because they are a good team. Against Cote d’Ivoire in the semis, the Ivorians were tired in the second half and Mali took over and scored late in the game. Their players are well built with a physical presence and a good defensive set up too. So far, they are the only team at this tournament not to have experienced extra time in any of their matches, and that should tell you they are a good side. ”
DR Congo will however be going into the match without the services of defender Padou Boumpunda, who scored DR Congo’s winner against Rwanda. He is ruled out for the final after picking up a second yellow card against Guinea in the semi-final.
Mali go into the final as the only team not to lose a game in the 16-team championship. The Eagles have played with a gritty determination, twice coming from behind to upset hot favourites, Tunisia and the African champions, Ivory Coast in the quarter and semi-finals respectively. The young Mali team, led by their under-17 skipper Abdoul Dante are playing in their first-ever African football final, in three CHAN appearances.
The hard-working side will also be without inspirational midfielder Sekou Diarra, who is suspended for the match.
Djibril Drame, Mali’s head Coach is not heavily bothered about Diarra’s absence.
“My players are talented and ambitious, but our preparation was no adequate. Yet, we are in the final. My job is to be familiar with the players. The key to the final will depend on the choice of players, good reading of the game and a combination of other parameters. Fitness, technical quality and strategic choices are important as mental toughness for a game of this nature. We will prepare just like for other matches but being a final there will be a particular pressure because there is gold at stake,” he told CAFonline.
African champions the Ivory Coast, meanwhile, will be aiming to make up for their semi-final flop when they face Guinea in the play-off. The match will begin at 2pm Nigerian time.
It will be the first time that the Ivorian Elephants play at this stage of the tournament.
“Nobody expected us to reach this level but we have done well,” coach Michel Dussuyer told reporters after the dramatic loss to Mali.
“We have to build on this and see what the future holds for us.”
The final and third place matches will be played at the Amahoro national stadium in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.
*With agency reports and CAF Online