Moroccan club Wydad Casablanca have made the most of getting a second chance in the 2011 CAF Champions League by qualifying for the final against Esperance of Tunisia this weekend.
They appeared to have reached the end of the road last May in search of a second title when a last-minute goal from defending champions TP Mazembe in the Democratic Republic of Congo eliminated the North Africans. But the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup runners-up fielded ineligible defender Janvier Bokungu against Wydad, and Simba of Tanzania in the previous round, and were disqualified.
After taking 87 minutes to pierce the Simba defence in a Cairo play-off for a group slot, Wydad went on to triumph 3-0 with consistent sharpshooters Fabrice Ondama and Mouhssine Iajour among the scorers. Drawn with record six-time winners Al Ahly of Egypt and former champions Esperance and Mouloudia Alger of Algeria, a Wydad squad under new Swiss coach Michel Decastel were long shots for a top-two finish and a semi-finals place.
Forced to start a physically and mentally gruelling mini-league campaign away to Ahly, Wydad led then trailed twice in a thriller before Iajour struck a minute from full time to snatch an unexpected 3-3 draw. A 4-0 mauling of Mouloudia followed with a first-minute goal from Congo Brazzaville-born Ondama triggering the rout and draws against Esperance (home and away) and Ahly (home) followed to leave Wydad second with one round left.
Bottom-of-the-table Mouloudia turned the tables with a 3-1 win, but Ahly were held in Cairo by Esperance and Wydad snatched second place on the head-to-head rule because they scored thrice in Cairo and Ahly only once in Casablanca. Eliminating Ahly did not convince many pundits Wydad were title material and twice champions Enyimba of Nigeria took an unbeaten run in the competition this season and the favourites tag into the semi-finals showdown.
The Nigerians were under siege for most of the first leg at the 70,000-seat Mohamed V Stadium and just when they looked like escaping with a draw, Benin midfielder Pascal Angan nodded the lone goal. Enyimba remained favourites but could not penetrate the Moroccan defence at home and a goalless draw meant the visitors were in the final for the first time since 1992 when they overcame Al Hilal of Sudan 2-0 on aggregate.
Class of 2011
That Wydad side included stars like defender Moureddine Naybet and midfielder Rachid Daoudi and Senegalese Moussa Ndaw poached vital goals as the Moroccans emulated domestic rivals Raja Casablanca and FAR Rabat by conquering Africa.
Although the 2011 class lacks 'big names', goalkeeper Nadir Lamyaghri is a likely first choice at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations next January and midfielders Said Fatah, Mohamed Berrabah and Ayoub El Khaliqi are also in the squad.
Quick, skilful Ondama is a crowd favourite and he and Iajour have contributed five goals each of the 21 Wydad struck in 15 matches en route to the final with the first leg this Sunday and the return match six days later in Tunis.
Silver-haired Decastel has experienced African glory - leading CS Sfaxien of Tunisia to the 1997 CAF Cup - and admits that 1994 champions Esperance will be "difficult opponents, but we hope to make the best out of it".
This will be the fourth African final appearance by Wydad as they lost the 1999 CAF Cup to Etoile Sahel of Tunisia on away goals and won the Cup Winners Cup three years later by the same method against Asante Kotoko of Ghana.