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Florent Ibenge reaching end of the road with Democratic Republic of Congo

For large swathes of their World Cup qualifying double-header against Tunisia this week, the Democratic Republic of Congo were comfortably the better side.

Despite falling behind in Rades, they created a multitude of chances - heaping pressure on Aymen Mathlouthi's goal - but after equalising through Cedric Bakambu, they would be level for just four minutes before Ghilane Chalali restored the home side's lead.

In Kinshasa - in front of 80,000 fans at the Stade des Martyrs - they tore into a two-goal lead, only to lose their way in the final half an hour, allowing Tunisia to snatch a 2-2 draw.

It's been a crushing international break, with the consequence being that the DRC find themselves three points behind the Eagles of Carthage with two games to play, having ceded the initiative in the group.

After beginning the week in pole position to progress to Russia on goal difference - and after bouncing back from the defeat in North Africa to establish such a promising position in Kinshasa - the chances of a maiden Congolese World Cup appearance since 1974 (as Zaire) appear slim.

Barring an unlikely comeback - which would require a Tunisian slip against either of already eliminated duo Guinea or Libya - failure to qualify will likely spell the end of the road for coach Florent Ibenge, if he keeps his job before the next two qualifiers in October and November.

The coach still has another four months to run on his contract, but Congo's lack of composure in crucial moments this week, plus the home-based Leopards' failure to qualify for the 2018 African Nations Championship to defend their title, may prompt a premature departure for the 55-year-old.

"I'm under contract until January 2018," Ibenge told Jeune Afrique after the home draw with Tunisia. "Unless they ask me to leave before.

"Maybe [World Cup qualification] would change things, but we'd need to negotiate," he continued. "What I can assure you is that if we don't qualify, I won't be asking for a new contract."

If he does ultimately fall short and part ways with the Leopards, it would be a sad end for a tenure that's promised so much since he replaced Jean-Santos Muntubila in 2014.

At the 2015 Nations Cup, Ibenge guided the Congolese to third place and their first semi-final showing since 1998, while they topped the 'Group of Death' at this year's continental showpiece before being narrowly defeated by Ghana in the second round.

Since Ibenge took over, the DRC have also reached the semi final of the 2016 COSAFA Cup and won the CHAN in the same year.

What's most impressive, perhaps, is how he's transformed the quality of the team's roster via three strands of recruitment: Youngsters, local-based players and dual-nationality players from the Congolese diaspora across Europe.

Steven N'Zonzi and Presnel Kimbempe remain elusive, but Ibenge has convinced the likes of Cedric Bakambu, Paul-Jose M'Poku, Gael Kakuta, Remi Mulamba, Jordon Ikoko, Benik Afobe, Christian Maghoma, Elias Kachunga, and Yeni N'Gbakoto - all of whom were youth internationals with European nations - to join the fold, despite not possessing the continental reputation of a Marc Wilmots.

Of the squad that Claude Le Roy took to the Nations Cup in 2013, only Issama Mpeko, Gabriel Zakuani and Chancel Mbemba were involved in the double-header against Tunisia, while Ibenge has also had to fare for the best part of a year without the injured Yannick Bolasie, one of Africa's most talented forwards.

His biggest achievement, perhaps, is the marriage that's been achieved between the various strands of players who make up his squad, with the Congolese boasting a unity, a togetherness and a rapport with their fans that few of the continent's other sides could better.

The team's 'Fimbu' celebration with their supporters has, over the last year, become one of the enduring images of the African game.

"We've always found that youth development is essential. We must be more interested in the youngsters," Ibenge continued. "I still don't understand why - especially in Kinshasa considering the reservoir of talent that exists - we don't do it sooner."

Ibenge has cultivated a terrific squad, but in Rades and in Kinshasa - and against Ghana at the Nations Cup -- there was a sense that they let him down at crucial moments.

"We'd just come back to 1-1 before half time, and then we stupidly cracked at the beginning of the second half," the coach lamented, when reflecting on his team's inability to retain the momentum during both of their clashes.

"We did great things, in the game, with our attitude, but in Rades - as in Kinshasa - there were moments of relaxing which hurt us," he added. "It's a great shame, as for the majority of the match we were in control of the game.

"We had opportunities to add to the score, but then we relaxed."

An Ibenge exit over the next four months would doubtless generate a sense of an 'opportunity lost' for the Leopards.

There are few local coaches in sub-Saharan Africa getting more out of their national teams at the moment, while only five sub-Saharan African coaches have ever previously managed at the World Cup.

Perhaps, however, the Leopards need new impetus, with the toil of managing both the national side and domestic heavyweights AS Vita Club appearing to take its toll on Ibenge, who cut a defeated figure after Tuesday's draw in Kinshasa.

"Managing the national team and AS Vita Club is a lot of work," he conceded. "Vita Club, in terms of pressure level, is like Marseille times 10!

"For more than three years, I've not slept a lot, I've travelled a lot, I can't really take holidays. It's a frantic pace...the way to get a stroke."

It may not be the end he'd envisaged, but even if he does depart to take on fresh challenges elsewhere, Ibenge can be proud of the work he's overseen with Congo, and the transformation that they've undergone during his tenure.

And who knows, with two games still to play in World Cup qualification, perhaps all is not yet lost!

Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.

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