By Abu Bakarr Kamara 11th September 2014 updated 20:00
As the battle of hopes between Sierra Leone and DR Congo kicks off in Lubumbashi on Wednesday September 10, all eyes will be on the Leone Stars who would be playing artificial host to their opponent in the latter’s back yard.
Both Sierra Leone and DR Congo fell to defeats in their opening encounters, but the manner of their respective demises couldn’t have been more differing, though one might say the Leone Stars did well against the strongest team in Africa while DR Congo failed to capitalize on their home advantage.
Hosting a vulnerable Cameroon, DR Congo rarely made life difficult for Volker Finke’s under pressure side. Goals from Clinton N’Jie and Vincent Aboubakar ensuring the Indomitable Lions post World Cup bow progressed without the alarm anticipated.
By comparison, the Leone Stars handed the Ivory Coast an almighty scare in Abidjan, with Johnny McKinstry’s side earning a halftime lead over their more coveted opponents. Goals from Seydou Doumbia and Gervinho spared Ivoirian blushes.
Nonetheless, that display provided ample evidence that Sierra Leone – currently occupying an all-time rankings peak of 50 – are not in the group to merely make up the numbers.
On the surface, Sierra Leone should arguably be entering the contest as favourites, against a side who in recent years have anything but pulled up trees. In World Cup qualification, DR Congo won just a single group game, with Saturday’s disappointing showing offering minimal hint of that trend being reversed.
Om the other hand, the Leone Stars have been making steady progress though they are yet to qualify for a major tournament since 1996 (almost two decades ago). A win against Swaziland and Seychelles at home and a draw in Seychelles coupled with their performance against the Ivoirians has raised the profile of a country that was considered before this time as underdogs in most fixtures.
The Leone stars are, however, hindered by a game designated as their home fixture being hosted in DR Congo due to the Ebola crisis; meaning, Sierra Leone was judged as unfit to be considered a suitable venue for international football.
After significant futile searching for an alternative location, DR Congo finally afforded Sierra Leone respite with Wednesday’s qualifier scheduled for Stade TP Mazembe in Lubumbashi – the same venue in which the Leopards fell victim to Cameroon.
From a purely logistical perspective, the change of venue, given the absence of a transition period to what was previously a genuine away fixture, allows DR Congo a significant advantage: an ability to claw back chunks of the ground the leopards concede in regards to momentum.
To counteract that, there is feasibility that DR Congo will be hindered by the absence of skipper Youssouf Mulumbu who hobbled off on Saturday while Sierra Leone skipper, Umaru Bangura is also set to miss the fixtures due to a groin injury he sustained while in Abidjan for the Ivory Coast match.
For both sides the fixture signifies a pivotal encounter, with any potential defeat liable to leave either facing a mountain to climb in order to make Morocco 2015. Sierra Leone carry the impetus, yet the absence of home comforts has the potential to prove terminally detrimental for McKinstry’s side.