Familiar foes vie for African glory

In the penultimate match of a long campaign, Wydad Casablanca of Morocco will host Tunisia’s Esperance at the Stade Mohamed V in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final on Sunday evening. They have each won Africa’s biggest club competition once before, and for both there is a great desire to cement a place among the giants of African football with the winner set to become the tenth club to win the event more than once.

Similar history

Along with a single moment of continental glory at the highest level, the two Maghrebian multi-sport clubs share numerous similarities. From their early founding dates to their lengthy pedigree near the top of the football pyramid, the pair also won their African titles just two years apart in the 1990s and feature nicknames based on their colours. Wydad Athletic Club, known also as WAC and the Red and Whites, became the third Moroccan side to lift the trophy in 1992, while Esperance, the Blood and Gold, won what was then known as the African Champions Cup in 1994.  

As well, there is a sense this year that an appearance in the final is a second bite at the apple. WAC had already been eliminated earlier in the competition by two-time defending champions TP Mazembe, but the Congolese side was disqualified for fielding an ineligible player. That allowed Wydad to continue on playing, and they lost just once in their next nine matches to reach the ultimate stage, which is just the second Champions League final in their history.

Esperance’s second chance harks back to last year’s same round where they were soundly beaten 5-0 in the first leg by Mazembe, only to lose 6-1 on aggregate in one of the most lopsided finals in history. That defeat has helped pin a tag of ‘nearly men’ squarely on the Blood and Gold, who have reached a further two finals and three semi-finals since 1999 and yet failed to claim the big prize. It’s a frustrating reputation for the most successful club in Tunisian football, one that has won just about every piece of silverware on the continent.

An air of familiarity

The teams are also not strangers on the pitch, having met, and drawn, twice in the group stage of the competition in August. The Red and Whites came roaring back from two goals down to draw 2-2 in the same Mohamed V before holding on for a scoreless point in the return. The Tunisians went on to prove themselves the class of Group B with ten points and no defeats in six contests, while Wydad just held on to nip Al Ahly on an away goals tie-break at seven points.

The Moroccans backed their way into the semi-final with a 3-1 loss at Mouloudia Alger, but rose to the occasion in the last four to fight their way to a perilous 1-0 aggregate win over favoured but gun-shy Enyimba of Nigeria. Esperance had an easier time against Sudan’s Al Hilal, winning both legs for a 3-0 aggregate score. They have tallied 23 goals and given up six en route to losing just a single match in the competition so far, and that was a meaningless second leg back in April. The pair of venerable clubs also met in a feisty two-legged Arab Champions League final in 2009. Esperance won by a 2-1 aggregate score after Oussama Darragi converted a late penalty against ten-man WAC.

How they stack up
After the loss to Mazembe in 2010, Esperance parted ways with familiar face Faouzi Benzarti, who went on to lead the national team, and settled on former international Nabil Maaloul to coach the side. The ambitious Maaloul made his primary goal known quickly after taking over the side, saying: “The Champions League is the number one objective of all Esperantistes.”

Captain Darragi remains a key figure at the heart of the team, while the exciting young pair of Youssef Msakni and Cameroonian Joseph Yannick Ndjeng have stepped into the attacking hole left by the departure of Nigerian Michael Eneramo to Turkey. Together the trio have accounted for a full 13 of Esperance’s goals. Maaloul has most of his squad available for selection although midfielder Mejdi Traoui is a question mark as the side searches for a historic treble after winning the league and cup this season.

The Tunisians do have a disadvantage in that they have yet to start their current league campaign, while Wydad have begun the Moroccan Botola in good form. There are a corresponding amount of niggling injuries in the side, but it seems that only right back Ayoub El-Khaliqi might miss out for coach Michel Decastel. The wily Swiss boss will be hoping that the strike pair of Fabrice Nguessi Ondama and Mouhssine Iajour, who have five goals each in the competition, will be fully fit by match time.

The second leg of the tie is the following weekend in Tunis, and the winner will qualify for December’s FIFA Club World Cup. Interestingly, the final of CAF’s second biggest club competition will also be between a Moroccan and a Tunisian club this year, in that case MAS Fez and Club Africain respectively.