Geoffroy Serey Die rescued a point for the Cote d’Ivoire as they drew 2-2 with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Oyem on Friday, boosting the reigning champions’ chances of reaching the quarter-finals.
Ivorian skipper Serey Die bagged the equaliser in the 67th minute when he slalomed past a Congolese challenge, cut in from the right and sent a deflected shot past Ley Matampi, rescuing a point against a vibrant Leopards side who had spawned opportunities to extend their lead.
Neeskens Kebano’s delicious opener had been cancelled out by a Wilfried Bony header midway through the first half as the Ivorians’ dominance began to show, but Junior Kabananga—one of the outstanding performers of the group stage—restored the Leopards’ advantage after he was picked out at the back before beating Sylvain Gbohouo with a downward header in the 28th minute.
Kebano, one of four changes to the Leopards’ starting XI, gave the Congolese an unexpected lead in the 10th minute when he fired low past Gbohouo after the ball was flicked into his path.
However, the reigning champs responded magnificently, and levelled the contest in the 26th minute when Bony leapt above a Congolese defence shorn of injured captain Gabriel Zakuani to head home a terrific cross from Max-Alain Gradel.
The Bournemouth wideman has endured a testing few years since the last Nations Cup, with injury devastating his maiden season in England, yet he proved once again why he deserves to be considered among Africa’s most-talented attacking midfielders with an excellent and proactive display.
In the five minutes preceding Bony’s goal, the striker missed a gilt-edged chance when he headed a sumptuous Gradel delivery wide, while the former Saint-Etienne wideman also whipped in a delicious cross which Matampi fumbled at his feet.
However, just as the Ivorians regained some measure of composure and had finally made their dominance tell, the Leopards reminded the watching world why they firmly deserve to be considered among the contenders for the Nations Cup.
Amid the many contenders the Central Africans could call upon to replace the injured Yannick Bolasie at this tournament, few had expected the ungainly Kabananga to emerge as the stand-out performer.
Indeed, rarely has Bolasie had this kind of consistent impact with the Leopards as the powerful Astanta attacker, who was picked out delightfully by Firmin Mubele—making mincemeat of Adama Traore all evening—and jumped to meet the ball and head past Gbohouo.
The Elephants had chances to level the contest in the second half, with Cheick Doukoure stinging Matampi’s hands with a 20-yard effort on the hour mark, before Serey Die took matters into his own hands.
Indeed, Firmin Mubele had missed a decent opportunity to extend Congo’s lead before the equaliser, firing into the side netting after crafting an opening to goal, although Florent Ibenge’s side were limited to brief forays forward after the break, as the Elephants demonstrated their superiority.
Matampi had to be alert to tip a Wilfred Zaha effort on to his crossbar as Michel Dussuyer’s outfit went in search of an equaliser, and substitute Salomon Kalou thought he’d found the net after a magical move in stoppage time, only for his effort to be ruled out for offside.
The result leaves the Leopards atop Group C with four points, while the Cote d’Ivoire sit behind them on two, although even a win against Morocco and former manager Herve Renard on Tuesday may not be enough to see them into the quarter-finals.
The Leopards meet Togo in their final group game in Port-Gentil next week, with the Sparrow Hawks squaring off against Morocco in Oyem later on Friday evening.
By Ed Dove