Esperance and Wydad Casablanca had 1-0 leads to defend in the second leg of the CAF Champions League semi-finals over the weekend, and both North African sides did just that to reach the final of the continent’s biggest club competition.
Esperance were heavily favoured after claiming an away win at Sudan’s Al Hilal a fortnight ago, but they were made to wait before running out to a 2-0 victory with two second half goals on Saturday. Youssef Msakni scored for the second match running seven minutes after half-time before Wajdi Bouazzi settled the tie 3-0 aggregate with a strike in the dying moments behind closed doors in Rades on the edge of Tunis.
Wydad’s 1-0 first-leg win came at home, and they faced a daunting trip at Enyimba, but the Red and Whites made the lone goal of the tie hold up with a tense scoreless draw in Aba, Nigeria on Sunday. The People’s Elephant assailed the Moroccan goal in front of their roaring supporters, but the 2003 and 2004 champions were unable to overturn Pascal Angan’s last-minute header from a fortnight ago.
Next month's final will be a two-legged, home-and-away contest with the winner claiming a spot in December's FIFA Club World Cup, which takes place in Japan. The two finalists met twice in the group stage in August with both matches ending up as draws, so it should be an exciting climax to the African club showpiece.
Second chances for both
The Blood and Gold of Esperance won the previous version of this event in 1994, but since then they have lost in the final three times - including last year when TP Mazembe thumped them by a 6-1 aggregate score. Proving themselves among the continental giants has driven the side since, and coach Nabil Maaloul has modulated their performances perfectly through the long campaign. Esperance have scored 23 goals while conceding just six, and they have lost just once in 12 matches - a 2-0 defeat at ASPAC in the second leg of the first round after they had essentially killed the tie with a 5-0 victory in the opener.
Despite the lack of home supporters against Hilal after crowd trouble in the group stage, the hosts were seldom threatened by the Sudanese, who have now gone out in the semi-finals three times in the last five years. Rising star Msakni is again hitting stride after a hot start to the tournament, and he has five goals in the ACL after being given the opportunity to attack through midfield due to the injury absence of captain Oussama Darragi. The 20-year-old Tunisian international was a menace from the opening whistle, but it wasn’t until the second period that he beat Hilal goalkeeper Moez Mahjoub after showing his skill to burst past two defenders and finish strongly. Bouazzi’s goal was another impressive goal in traffic to settle the match and set off celebrations, outside of the stadium at least.
Enyimba went through their first 11 matches unbeaten in the Champions League until their 1-0 reverse in Casablanca, but their previously vaunted attack let them down in the last four. Despite the depression of Nigerian supporters, who are also dealing with the elimination of their national team from qualifying for January’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations, it was a professional performance by Wydad that undid them.
The 1992 champions have made little impact on the competition since then, but the Moroccan Botola holders will be no soft touch against favoured Esperance. Wydad's Swiss coach Michel Decastel, in his second spell with the club, said that his side would push for an away goal in Aba, and they hit the woodwork in the early going, which seemed to knock the hosts onto their heels. In the second half, Enyimba created a number of chances as WAC retreated into a shell, but Uche Kalu and Ifeanyi Ede missed opportunities before substitute Victor Barnabas spurned a short-range chance in the late going when it looked like he would put things into extra time.
It was a well-deserved result for the side said Decastel afterwards, who was nonetheless proud his team dealt with the power of the Nigerians. "Enyimba are a very strong side, and we expected their pressure in the second half," he said. "They were unlucky not to have converted their chances, but overall I can say we played better than them and responded better to circumstances. The players have made us all proud."
Morocco and Tunisia are generally powers in African club football, with their teams winning the Champions League five and three times respectively overall. They currently have two teams in the semi-finals of the CAF Confederation Cup this year, with Club Africain and MAS Fez both on the inside track to also reach a continental final and make it a banner year for the two North African nations.