Can fallen giants Vita Club banish memories of 2014 vs. Raja Casablanca?

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V. Club are looking to extend Congolese dominance in the Confederation Cup, and escape Tout Puissant Mazembe's shadow

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Tout Puissant Mazembe and AS Vita Club have always been jostling for prominence, both domestically and continentally, almost ever since the inauguration of Linafoot in 1958.

The two Congolese heavyweights have traded titles on and off for six decades, with Mazembe getting the best of the 1960s, and Vita Club the undisputed kings of the 1970s…almost.

Les Corbeaux were African champions in 1967 and 1968, but V. Club’s magnificent generation of the 70s picked up the gauntlet with a victory of their own in 1973.

In recent decades, however, largely swelled by the financial backing of Moise Katumbi Chapwe, Mazembe have pulled ahead.

They’ve won 11 Congolese titles since the turn of the decade, compared to Vita Club’s four, and also become the third most successful side in African competition after Al-Ahly and SC Zamalek.

A 40-year wait for an African title was ended with the CAF Champions League title in 2009, and they followed that up with triumphs in 2010 and 2015.

In the last two years, they won back-to-back Confederation Cups—in 2016 and 2017—and firmly become the force of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Koffi Kouame and Sylvian Gbohouo of TP Mazembe celebrate CAF Confederation Cup Novermber 2017

By contrast, Vita Club have become one of the continent’s many fallen giants.

Their African Cup of Champions Clubs success in 1973 remains an isolated triumph in the continental arena, although they have twice returned to the final—in 1981 and 2014.

While Mazembe have stormed ahead in the continental stakes, Vita Club have lagged behind, although victory over Raja Casablanca in this year’s two-legged Confederation Cup final could signal a return to form.

Certainly, coach Florent Ibenge—who doubles up as the manager of the Democratic Republic of Congo national side—is determined that Les Dauphins Noirs will banish the memories of their 2014 final defeat by ES Setif.

“We played the final in 2014, and it still sticks in the throat,” Ibenge told journalists, as per Matin Infos, “because we lost the cup without losing on the pitch.

“We want to bring the cup back home, four years on.”

Florent Ibenge

Indeed, Vita Club were unfortunate not to have ended their wait for continental gold four years ago, when they were pipped on away goals following a 3-3 aggregate draw against Setif.

A 2-2 draw at home meant that a 1-1 draw away in Blida proved insufficient to clinch the continent’s top prize.

“In the last four years, the squad’s changed,” Ibenge reflected. “There are still some who are here.

“Of course, [for Raja] there will be Chikito Lema [Mabidi], who was with us [in 2014] and scored in the final.”

Indeed, while former Vita Club star Mabidi has experience of scoring in a high-profile final, having netted three times over both legs in 2014, he isn’t the only Raja player that the Congolese giants must be wary of.

22-year-old Mahmoud Benhalib leads the competition scoring charts with 11 goals, while Mouhcine Iajour also has six, and was the Botola’s top scorer in 2017-18.

Zakaria Hadraf, who caught the eye for Morocco during their African Nations Championship-winning campaign, is a lethal presence in wide areas, while Abdelilah Hafidi featured for the senior Atlas Lions side during the recent African break. He might be the most exciting creative midfielder on the continent today.

Raja Casablanca

Ibenge will be conscious of the threats, but he isn’t overawed by the threat of the North Africans.

“I’m delighted [to be here],” he concluded. “We do this job for this.

“It’s a great moment, and we’re going to give everything, and regret nothing.”

Certainly, despite the quality in front of them, Vita Club have the quality to trouble Raja.

They demonstrated it in their 4-0 rout of Egypt’s Al-Masry in the semi-final, where Jean-Marc Makusu—the star of their run to the final—was one of three goalscorers.

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He may have 10 goals so far this tournament, but he’s not alone as a V. Club threat, with Ngoy Emomo—who netted twice against Masry—also capable of stealing the show.

Ibenge, whose meticulous attention to detail prompted Vita Club to arrive in Morocco six days before the first leg, will know what an opportunity this is for his beloved side.

They’re unlikely to have too many better chances to end their wait for continental gold…or to escape the shadow of Mazembe.

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