DR Congo finished top of Group B of the Total African Nations Championship (CHAN) 2020 after beating Niger 2-1 in Yaounde on Monday.
A 90th minute howler by Mena goalkeeper Abdoul Razak Halidou allowed the Leopards to win the match and end their opponents hopes of advancing.
With the score at 1-1 Niger were hoping to win to qualify for the knock-out stage of the tournament until Halidou’s attempt to clear a back pass ended as a gift to Leopards striker Masasi Obenza who gratefully tapped in for the winner.
The Mena wasted decent scoring opportunities early in the game before their profligacy was punished in the 27th minute by John Kadima.
The Motema Pembe striker broke the deadlock by heading in a long ball from the right to spark the hopes of the two-time champions.
Mena had to wait until the midway through the second-half to respond in a similar fashion when substitute Mossi Issa Moussa headed in following a cross from the right.
But the blunder by their goalkeeper late in the game sealed the fate of the West Africans despite putting in the late fight in their quest to win the game.
The victory for DR Congo means they finish top of the group with seven points, Congo take the second position with four points while Libya and Niger are tied at the bottom of the group with two points apiece.
Niger took charge at the start of the game and a poor clearance by a Congolese defender on three minutes allowed captain Idrissa Garba to sneak.
The Mena striker could not fire home with just goalkeeper Siadi Nguisa Baggio at his mercy as his shot went just wide.
Moments later Garba had another good scoring opportunity from a swift-counter attack by the Nigeriens but his dipping volley from the edge of the box went narrowly wide.
The Leopards reorganized and responded just before the half-hour mark when a ball was lofted from the right and Kadima rose highest to nod in the opener.
Issa Djibrilla sought to hit back in the 31st minute after making light work of two defenders but his shot from inside the box of the Congolese failed to find his target.
Two minutes later Leopards striker Makabi Lilepo let fly with a 20-yard rocket shot that flew past keeper Abdoul Razak Halidou but could not find the net.
Niger returned from the break determined to win the match despite being one goal down and threw more men forward in search of the equalizer.
They were rewarded for their fortitude in the 73rd minute when substitute Mossi Issa Moussa jumped above the Leopards defence to head in the equalizer after an inviting cross from the right.
Niger could have gone in front with four minutes remaining after a swift counter-attack put substitute striker Adamou Issa Moussa in the Leopards goal area but his belter missed the target.
With the match looking like ending in a draw goalkeeper Halidou took a back pass and in his quest to clear the ball he attempted a dribble but stumbled and allowed Obenza to score.
DR Congo will play hosts Cameroon at the Japoma Stadium in Douala on Saturday while Mali will stay in Yaounde to take on Congo at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium also on Saturday.
What they said
Pamphile Mihayo (DR Congo assistant coach)
Congratulations to Niger who presented great football. As I said before the match, we expected a tough game. With a decimated squad, where twelve players were missing due to COVID-19, we were able to achieve our first goal by qualifying for the quarterfinals.
Regarding our quarterfinal match against Cameroon, we will prepare under the same conditions. There are things to improve and prepare our team.
Harouna Doula (Niger coach)
Beating DR Congo was like an achievement for us. I congratulate the Leopards on their qualification. I wish a speedy recovery to the head coach of DR Congo. We came very close to qualifying to the quarterfinals.