North Africans take lead in last four
© AFP

Esperance of Tunisia took a massive step toward reaching their second consecutive CAF Champions League final with a 1-0 away win over Al Hilal of Sudan on Sunday in the first leg of the semi-finals. The Blood and Gold, who were beaten in a lopsided final last year by TP Mazembe, made an early goal from Tunisian international Youssef Msakni hold up, while the other semi-final was settled at the other end of the contest through Pascal Angan’s dramatic late winner for Wydad Casablanca against Enyimba.

The Moroccans are the first side to beat the 2003 and 2004 champions in this year’s event after the Nigerians went through 11 matches unbeaten, but their advantage could have been better ahead of the return leg in Aba in a fortnight. Esperance’s away goal in Omdurman makes them clear favourites to return to the final for the fourth time since they won the event in 1994, while Al Hilal are trying to avoid being eliminated at the semi-final stage for the third time in five years.

Taming the Elephant
One of the most impressive teams in the tournament, Enyimba have proven themselves particularly stout on the defensive end, so it was little surprise that striker Uche Kalu found himself cutting a lonely figure up front for the People’s Elephant in a fantastic, crowded Stade Mohamed V on Saturday night. In contrast, Wydad were committed to find a goal to take with them in the second leg, and they had the overwhelming majority of chances on goal. But largely down to the heroics of Enyimba goalkeeper Paul Godwin, the Red and Whites had to wait until the final minute to find their breakthrough when second half substitute Angan headed the only goal of the match into the net.

It was the Benin international midfielder’s second goal of the campaign, and the 1992 champions could have had a handful more if not for Godwin, who is typically second choice behind the injured Chijioke Ejiogu but has filled in admirably over the last month. Ironically, the goalkeeper, whose mediocre clearance played a part in creating the goal in Enyimba’s 1-0 loss in the final of the Nigerian FA Cup last weekend, again held some blame for the goal. But while Godwin flapped at and missed a free-kick from the right side, Angan deserves credit for exploding forward to nod the ball in right at the back post amidst a thunderous noise from the home supporters.

We did not do well with them and could have regretted our misses.
Wydad Casablanca coach Michel Decastel on his side's many chances

Despite the late fireworks, the goal was no less than the hosts deserved. They had seemed to open the scoring much earlier in the contest when Wydad’s inspirational striker Fabrice Ondama bulged the net near the quarter-hour mark only for the Congolese international’s shot to be waved off for a foul. Enyimba defender Markson Ojobo also saved a shot off the line after some impressive work by another Wydad substitute, Youssef Kaddioui. And Godwin’s night could have been significantly worse shortly after Angan’s goal when the home crowd believed him to have handled outside of the box after a deft touch by Kaddioui set up a chance at goal.

Wydad’s Swiss coach Michel Decastel said he was pleased that goalkeeper Nadir Lemyaghri was seldom tested by the visitors, but he was worried his team came close to wasting their dominance. “We played very well in the first half and created several chances, but we did not do well with them and could have regretted our misses,” he said. “We stayed at it and we had some bad luck, but we kept pressing them and creating danger. Enyimba are a strong team, but we deserved to win and a 3-0 score would not have been unfair.”

Rising star lifts Esperance
If there were any doubts, Esperance proved they were no soft touch on the road by drawing all three away matches in the group stage, and they pulled off an impressive win in front of the frustrated Al Hilal Stadium crowd. The Blood and Gold went ahead in the fourth minute as Msakni finished calmly after a long run and pass that split the hosts’ defence. Just 20 years old, attacking midfielder Msakni stepped into the missing shoes of Oussama Darragi and reinforced his rising star reputation with his fourth goal of the event, although he had not tallied since April.

The match was an even affair, with Al Hilal growing into the contest as it went on. Their Zimbabwean striker Edward Sadomba, who leads the event in scoring with seven goals, was a consistent menace, and he hit the post in the dying moments. Also in the final seconds, Mohamed Tahir went close to equalising in front of the disbelieving home supporters. Esperance’s Yannick Ndjeng had two good chances in the second half, but in both cases he was denied by experienced Sudanese goalkeeper El Moiz Mahgoub.

The Tunisians will host the return leg in two weekends as favourites to be one of the teams in November's two-legged final. The winner of the final qualifies for the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan this December.