The CAF Champions League final will come down to next weekend’s second leg after the first half of the tie between Wydad Casablanca and Esperance ended scoreless at the Stade Mohamed V in Casablanca.
The host Moroccans will be pleased not to have conceded a goal against the favoured Tunisians on Sunday evening, but they failed to make their advantages pay in front of a buzzing sea of ardent supporters. The return leg is next Saturday outside Tunis where the Blood and Gold will be anxious to prevent Wydad finding an away goal, given that the teams have now played each other three times in the latter stages of the CAF Champions League, with all three matches ending in a draw.
Late in two halves
In the corresponding fixture in Morocco’s largest city midway through August, the hosts came from two down to draw, before the duo played out another goalless affair two weeks later at the Stade El Menzah. In that first match Esperance were the quickest out of the gate with two first half goals before Wydad recovered their balance and grabbed a brace after the hour mark. This weekend, it was the reverse with the Red and Whites looking more confident to open, and they eased their way into the contest before pinning the visitors back in their own third for most of the time after the half hour mark.
However, the experienced Tunisians, dressed in a grey strip, stayed mostly organised against the aggressors and had goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifa to thank for holding off Wydad when they broke through. The net-minder first dove into his top right corner to deny a free-kick from the edge of the area on the half hour mark, before showing good reactions to save from Yassine Rami and Congo DR international Fabrice Ondama with half-time looming.
Esperance looked more comfortable after the break, and the match got more hectic and open. The Blood and Gold introduced captain Oussama Darragi, which gave them impetus moving forward, and they created a few half chances - the best falling to Mejdi Traoui and Khaled Mouelhi before a flurry of opportunities fell to the visitors late on. First, Darragi won a free-kick 30 yards out, which Khaled Korbi curved in dangerously only to see his shot well saved by goalkeeper and Wydad captain Lamyaghri Nadir diving to his left. From the resultant corner, defender Walid Hichri could only muscle the ball wide of the near post with an athletic header, while Wajdi Bouazzi floated his open shot over in the dying moments as Esperance came closest to claiming a vital away goal. In the end, however, both teams failed to take full advantage of the chances that were created in a nervy match.
Struggling to re-write history
The recent evenly cut matches between the two North African clubs have given an added dimension to this year’s final, which is the culmination of the most prestigious club competition in Africa. Given that the sides both won the event for the only time in the 1990s, there is further pressure for timely glory by becoming the tenth club on the continent to claim the trophy more than once.
Esperance have an added motivation after losing last year’s final to TP Mazembe by a lopsided 6-1 aggregate score, which condemned them to a runners-up finish for the third time in a dozen years. In the latest attempt to break a bittersweet streak, their nerves must be jangling given that the last time Esperance met a Moroccan club in the two-legged final - against Raja Casablanca in 1999 - they drew 0-0 in the first leg before going down on penalties after the completion of the scoreless tie.
"The players have a great determination to win the Champions League and write their names in Tunisian football history," Esperance coach Nabil Maaloul said about his side, who are struggling to change the weight of history. “This is a very special match for the club, who have been chasing this trophy for many years."
Adding to the pressure is the knowledge that with a win in the second leg either club will qualify for the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup, which is in Japan this December. Mazembe made history at the last event when they became the first African side to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, but they were disqualified from this year's tournament despite defeating Wydad after fielding an ineligible player. Wydad have taken the second opportunity to reach their first final since lifting the African Champions Cup in 1992.