Democratic Republic of Congo clawed back into contention for a second African Nations Championship title by coming from behind to defeat Côte d'Ivoire 2-1 in Sudan today. All the goals came during the first half with midfielder Jean-Paul Kesse giving the Ivorians a ninth-minute lead, Matondo Salakiaku levelling and Dioko Kaluyituka bagging the 30th-minute winner.
It was a must-win game for the defending champions, boosted by many of the TP Mazembe stars who finished runners-up to Inter Milan at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup, after a shock 2-0 defeat by Cameroon in their first mini-league outing.
Cameroon edged Mali 1-0 in the first half of an Al-Merreikh Stadium double-header to remain top of the table with a maximum six points followed by Côte d'Ivoire and DR Congo with three each and pointless Mali. The final Group C fixtures are scheduled to be played simultaneously next Monday night with the Congolese facing the Malians and the Cameroonians up against the Ivorians.
Pool winners and runners-up advance to the quarter-finals of the biennial championship for home-based footballers that kicked off in Côte d'Ivoire two years ago with DR Congo too strong for favoured Ghana in the final.
With almost half the 23-man squad coming from Mazembe, DR Congo carried the burden of favouritism into the 16-nation tournament with Sudan coach Mohamed Abdallah admitting no other team could match the Congolese squad. "DR Congo are the team to beat. They boast the strongest squad with many of their players helping Mazembe reach the Club World Cup final," confessed the experienced Sudanese handler.
Veteran Mazembe goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba, a crowd favourite on account of his dreadlocks and bottom-bouncing celebratory style, blamed fatigue born of too many club and national team engagements for the Cameroon defeat. But coach Muntubile Santos, who was also in charge of the 2009 title-winning squad, disagreed, saying he was baffled by the reverse but did not believe it was due to combat weariness.
Cameroon rode their luck to defeat Mali via a 68th-minute headed goal from defender Geremi Sagong off a corner as their rivals squandered several good scoring chances. Alou Bagayoko, who struck a brace for Bamako club Djoliba in an CAF Champions League qualifier two weeks ago, was the chief culprit with two glaring misses.