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Congo’s Balotelli woes give warriors big boost. . . Red Devils star likely to miss AFCON decider

By Robson Sharuko

The football gods appear to be casting a bright light on the Warriors path, as they battle to make the 2019 AFCON finals, with Congo-Brazzaville’s attacking mainstay, Thievy Bifouma, now set to miss the winner-take-all showdown in Harare on March 24.

Thievy Bifouma
Thievy Bifouma

The 26-year-old, dubbed the new Mario Balotelli by his former coach at English side West Bromwich, has played all his professional football in Europe — in the Premiership, Spanish La Liga and the Turkish Super League where he now plays for Malatyaspor.

He moved to his club last month, to escape the financial difficulties that have plagued Ankaragucu, but after just four games broke down when he damaged his medial collateral ligament on his knee and could be out of action for another five to six weeks from now.

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Thievy suffered a grade three MCL injury, the most severe of such type of injuries, which take up to eight weeks to heal and his Turkish club have said they can’t even provide a date as to when they expect him to possibly return to action.

Malatyaspor are the fourth club Thievy, who was born in France and played for the French Under-20 and Under-21 national teams before choosing Congo-Brazzaville for his senior international football duty, has played for.

He previously had stints at Ankaragucu, Sivasspor and Osmanlispor since his arrival in Turkey in January 2017.

The lively winger has also featured for Espanyol, Las Palmas, Almeria and Granada in Spain, Reims and Bastia in France and West Bromwich in England and, throughout his professional career, has impressed with his superb conversion rate for someone who largely plays on the flanks.

Since his debut for Congo-Brazzaville, five years ago, he has scored a goal every other game for his country — 15 goals in 31 appearances for the Red Devils.

On September 6, 2014, in a 2015 AFCON qualifier in Calabar, he hogged the limelight in the football world when he scored a brace, either side of the break, to help Congo-Brazzaville post a shock 3-2 away win over then defending champions Nigeria.

It was the first home defeat for the Super Eagles since 1981 but the Congolese Red Devils, inspired by the impressive Thievy, shattered that proud record that had stood the test for 33 years.

It meant that Congo-Brazzaville joined the fine company of such heavyweight nations — Uruguay, Argentina, Spain and France — who were the only nations who had found a way to beat the Super Eagles since they were crowned champions of Africa in 2013.

Thievy continued his fine streak of form at the 2015 AFCON finals where he scored Congo’s first goal of the tourney in the 1-1 draw to Equatorial Guinea and then scored again in the 2-1 victory over Burkina Faso and this powered them into the quarter-finals of the tournament.

Congo were drawn against neighbours DRC in the quarter-finals and Thievy again scored in that match, for his third goal in the tournament, to stretch his team’s lead to 2-0 before their feisty rivals hit back to score four goals and win the match 4-2.

He has also been in good form in the current AFCON qualifiers, scoring the equaliser for his country in the 1-1 draw in Brazzaville, scoring their only goal in the 1-3 defeat in Kinshasa and then scoring again in the 1-1 draw against their neighbours in the return match in Brazzaville.

With three goals, in four appearances for his country last year, he is only behind Knowledge Musona, among the leading scorers in the AFCON qualifying group, with the Warriors skipper leading the charge with four goals while Thievy has three, the same number as Liberian’s William Jebor.

Former West Bromwich coach, Pepe Mel, was impressed with Bifouma, when he moved to the Baggies in February 2014, the Spanish gaffer even labelled him the new Balotelli.

“He is a different player. He is funny, he is happy, he is quick and when he is on the pitch there are always new ideas coming to him,’’ said Mel.

“He is someone to change the matches, he is very good. He can come on and make a difference.

“He is young, he wants to be a good player and learn every day. In Spain he played well, for me he is good. He looks a bit like Balotelli, yes. But he has a long way to go before becoming like Balotelli.

“But the raw ingredients are there, of course. “What I see in Bifouma is that he is quick and he scores goals, he is very dangerous in the penalty box.”

Thievy’s possible absence from the match against the Warriors could be a huge boost for Sunday Chidzambwa and his men who need just to avoid defeat and reach the AFCON finals in Egypt later this year. Meanwhile, Chidzambwa yesterday said he was not interested in awards but was fully focused on trying to take the Warriors to Egypt.

The veteran coach was sucked into a row when his name was surprisingly omitted from the Annual Sports Awards shortlist for the Coach of the Year despite leading the Warriors to COSAFA Cup glory and within touching distance of the AFCON finals, including a stunning victory in Kinshasa. Chidzambwa’s name was only included on the shortlist after one of those who had been named could not qualify for the award.

“I want to make it clear that I’m not interested in any awards, throughout my long life in football I have won many awards and, at this stage of my career, awards don’t mean anything,’’ he said.

“My focus is on taking the boys to Egypt and I would be better off my name being associated with articles about that campaign and not the controversy over awards.’’ The Herald