After almost 10 months and 130 matches, the 2011 edition of the CAF Champions League comes down to a single contest this weekend between Tunisia's Esperance and Wydad Casablanca of Morocco. After the first leg of the final ended scoreless in Casablanca a week ago, the advantage falls to last year's losing finalists Esperance, who know that victory in Rades on Saturday evening will crown them African kings for the second time in their history.
However, with no road goal to protect them, the Blood and Gold are vulnerable to a sucker punch from Wydad, who have proven themselves wily competitors this year, particularly in away matches. And given that these two clubs have met three times already this year in the ACL, and all three contests have ended in draws, the hosts might be more tentative than normal. However, urged on by a packed Stade 14 January on the outskirts of Tunis, the Taraji remain favourites to claim their first trophy since 1994, despite the fact that they have fallen at this hurdle in three tries since then.
For their part, the Red and Whites proved themselves resilient in the latter stages of the tournament by winning a point at both Egyptian giants Al Ahly and Esperance in the group stage, before holding Enyimba of Nigeria to a goalless stalemate in the semi-final second leg to maintain the narrowest of leads from the first leg. Having been saved after the fact from elimination when reigning two-time champions TP Mazembe were disqualified for using an ineligible player, Wydad have made the most of their second chance in pursuit of a first win in this event since 1992.
One captain out, one returns
In the opening match of the final tie, the Moroccans had the better of the initial stages before only just emerging unscathed after a late barrage of attacks from the Tunisian side. It was a nervy contest with little in the way of fluid attacking moves, and set pieces again offered the prime opportunities for breakthrough. The goalkeepers on both sides won plaudits for their performances with Wydad captain Lamyaghri Nadir and Esperance's Moez Ben Cherifa turning in some acrobatic saves. Unfortunately, Nadir is due to miss out on the second leg after injuring a shoulder in training this week, and he will be replaced by young Moroccan prospect Yassine Bounou. Wydad are also trying to work out a schedule for rangy striker Fabrice Ondama, who is due to play for Congo DR in their two 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers this week.
Along with the tag of favourites comes the weight of expectation for Esperance, who can complete a calendar treble after winning the domestic league and cup. In preparing for this historic opportunity, they can look back on their history in a pair of finals where the opening legs ended scoreless. The first, in 1994, saw them win the home leg 3-1 after a 0-0 away match to start against Zamalek, while five years later they battled to a second goalless draw with Wydad's cross-town rivals Raja, before going down on penalties in front of their home crowd. Captain Oussama Darragi summed up the drive of the Tunisians to stock the trophy cabinet, saying this week that "[the team] has sworn to win the cup in tribute to the Esperance supporters."
If a tactical battle does develop, it should be an interesting chess match between two well-known veteran coaches. The Swiss-born boss of Wydad, Michel Decastel, has been coaching in Africa for over a decade, including leading Esperance early in the 2000s. His opposite number on the day will be Nabil Maaloul, a former Tunisian international player, national team assistant and TV pundit with EST in his blood. Decastel is undoubtedly weighing how best to protect his inexperienced but talented netminder, while striving for an away goal. Maaloul needs to balance his crowded midfield to make room for returning Darragi, who brought a spark in the closing minutes of the first leg. The exciting duo of Youssef Msakni and Joseph Yannick Ndjeng are in form attacking possibilities, although Maaloul will be conscious of too much exposure to his young but talented back-line.
The winner in the second leg will become the tenth club to win Africa's biggest club competition at least twice, and they will also qualify for the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup, which is in Japan this December.