Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
THEY were desperate to have him here for the final showdown and, for a good reason too, given he has been the heart and soul of these Red Devils for the past five years.
And, during that time, his stock has risen considerably to such an extent they even call him the Congolese Balotelli.
Had he not scored in the Congolese’ last game in these 2019 AFCON qualifiers last November, in a 1-1 draw against neighbours DRC in Brazzaville, the Red Devils would have come to Harare with nothing to play for.
They would have been the only team in the group to be knocked out of the race with a game to spare.
But, as he has so often done for his country, Thievy Bifouma, struck a priceless goal in that match.
And this ensured the Red Devils will now arrive in Harare with something to fight for given a victory at the National Sports Stadium on Sunday will help them book a place at the AFCON finals in Egypt.
It all set up this grandstand finish in which all the four teams in the group have a chance to qualify.
That goal was his third in these qualifiers, underlining his importance to the team, after also having scored in the 1-3 loss to the DRC in Kinshasa and the 1-1 home draw against the Warriors in Brazzaville.
Only Knowledge Musona, the Warriors skipper, has scored more goals (4) than Bifouma, who is on the books of Turkish Super Ligi side Yeni Malatyaspor, having played top-flight league football in Spain and England in his career, in these current qualifiers in the group.
Thievy suffered a grade three MCL injury, the most severe of such type of injuries, in February, and required about eight weeks to heal but, with the Congolese facing a make-or-break battle against the Warriors on Sunday, they decided to take a chance on him and included the star forward in their squad.
However, they have now conceded he won’t be able to put in a shift on Sunday and Bifouma has now been dropped from the squad preparing for the big battle at the giant stadium.
“Bifouma and Kivutuka are now officially out,’’ the Congolese announced. ‘’They had been selected in the final list of the team that will face the Zimbabwe national team on March 24 in Harare.
“(However), Thievy Bifouma and Cabwey Kivutuka will miss the last game of the AFCON 2019.
“The star striker of the Red Devils, Thievy Bifouma, has not yet completely recovered from his injury. No expatriates would be called in reinforcement.’’
Defender Fernand Mayembo, who had been reported to be out of the match because of some personal issues, will travel to Harare for the match.
But, there is no doubt, Bifouma will be a massive loss for the Red Devils, not because he makes a huge difference for the team and also leads from the front but, also, because his presence also raises the morale in the team.
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.
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.”
Now, the Red Devils have to find a way to win without him but, as they showed in the 3-1 win over Liberia in Brazzaville, the Congolese can also score goals in matches when Bifouma isn’t on target.
Merveil Ndockyt, who plays for the Barcelona B side, Prince Ibra, a striker for Algerian side USM Alger, and Prince Oniangue, who is on the books of French side Caen, scored in that match.
The Red Devils have scored in each of the games they have played in the current 2019 AFCON qualifiers and, if they maintain that form, it means the Warriors will need to be on target at the giant stadium.