Port Elizabeth — The Democratic Republic of Congo squandered two gilt-edged chances in the first half to drop valuable points in a goalless draw with Niger in Port Elizabeth on Thursday.
Instead of moving to tie at the top of the Group C standings at the African Nations Cup they now face the danger of potential elimination after botching what many thought a routine assignment.
The Leopards have only two points and must beat Mali in their last game in Durban on Monday to qualify for the last eight.
It was a historic result for Niger, who now have their first-ever Nations Cup point. They had lost four previous matches across two finals appearances.
But they are still propping up the standings, albeit with a chance to still qualify.
Niger might have taken a surprise lead in the fourth minute when Modibo Sidibe rode through a defensive challenge and found himself with just the goalkeeper to beat.
But just when it seemed he could not miss - and in so doing score Niger’s second-ever goal at the finals - he managed to hit with unerring accuracy the base of the upright, with the Congo goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba well beaten, and watched in horror as the ball bounced back into play.
It marked the start of an error-strewn game full of foibles, particularly on the part of the Mena Stars. Passes went astray at crucial moments, players slipped at vital junctures and poor decision-making cost them.
But Congo played their part too, particularly Mbokani, the Belgian-based striker seen as the star of the side.
He beat the offside trap in the 13th minute, had time to pull down a pass from Patou Kabungu off his chest and hit it goalward, only for Daouda Kassaly to palm the ball away.
It was ironic that the goalkeeper whose mistake cost Niger defeat in the opening game on Sunday should make an even better save at point-blank range just before halftime. He dived full stretch again in the 42nd minute to deny Mbokani after a series of passes on the edge of the Niger box, as Congo swept forward with three attackers and seemed to have the ball at their mercy.
Mbokani looked desolate as the chances went a begging, his coach Claude Le Roy remonstrating with him to lift his spirits as the halftime whistle went.
Niger were always chasing the second ball against a better Congo team but kept up a fight of their own at a noisy Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Captain Moussa Maazou had a shot blocked in the 57th minute and then three minutes later a powerful header saved after a superb flick pass from Boubacar Talatou.