The only thing that stands between Esperance Sportive and back-to-back CAF Champions League titles is Egyptian giants Al Ahly, who host the first leg of the two-legged final in the port city of Alexandria on Sunday. The Red Devils have six continental crowns in their cabinet, but the Blood and Gold are brimming with confidence after eliminating four-time champions TP Mazembe 1-0 on aggregate in the semi-final.
A side with plenty of attacking firepower, Esperance have allowed only six goals in their ten Champions League matches this term. One of the vital components to their care of the ball and control of the matches has been Tunisia defensive midfielder Houcine Ragued, who is playing in his first-ever season in Africa and stands on the brink of winning the continent's top club prize with Esperance.
The 29-year-old started his professional career in France with his hometown club Paris Saint-Germain and some smaller teams, before moving to Mons in Belgium and Slavia Prague. His next port of call was Turkey, where he signed for Karbukspor before arriving earlier this year in Tunis. FIFA.com caught up with Ragued ahead of the away leg at the Borg El Arab Stadium.
FIFA.com: Houcine, the winner of the CAF Champions League qualifies for the FIFA Club World Cup. How important therefore is winning the continental crown?
Houcine Ragued: Of course, it gives us a extra motivation. Most of the players in the team already played in the FIFA Club World Cup last year. These players told us new players what a great experience it was. Our fans also want us to win the African Champions League so that Tunisia represents Africa at the Club World Cup.
After the Port Said tragedy, most of the games in Egypt have been played behind closed doors. The final will be played in Alexandria and officials have said they will allow some Al Ahly fans. Are you pleased that there will be some spectators or would you prefer to play in an empty stadium?
As we saw at Mazembe [in Lubumbashi], the crowd is part of the appeal of playing in Africa. Supporters are part of the magic of African football. We talked about that in the team, so we are all pleased to play in front of a crowd. Playing a final behind close doors would be tasteless. I cannot imagine myself playing and hearing the birds fly overhead.
After eliminating TP Mazembe in the semi-finals, the confidence must be sky-high in the team...
Although we eliminated TP Mazembe, we do not feel arrogant. On the contrary, I would say that TP Mazembe was easier to play than Al Ahly. Against Mazembe, we knew that the most important thing was to avoid conceding a goal in Lubumbashi. We accomplished that mission, which made the second leg much simpler for us. I think Al Ahly will be a tougher opponent. We knew that, tactically speaking, we were better than Mazembe. That will not be the case against Al Ahly. They are more experienced, better balanced and used to playing in games with high stakes. They are less naive than Mazembe. This final could turn out to be a game of chess. We must be ready to face what they throw at us.
Will you be going for a draw in the away leg?
Not at all! A draw was sufficient against Mazembe, but we don't think it will be the case against Al Ahly. We will go to Egypt to win.
What are Esperance’s strongest assets?
Collectively, we are very strong and very flexible. We can play 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or any other formation. We know that, if we need to defend, we are able to 'lock the door'. But we also have very creative and skilled players, the likes of Youssef Msakni, Joseph Yannick Ndjeng, Youssef Belaili or Harrison Afful. Individually speaking, I think our creative players are slightly superior to Ahly's.
Mohamed Aboutrika is returning to action and is very important for Al Ahly. How do you think you can curtail him?
We all know how important he is for his team, but we won't have special tactics to contain him. We had to contain Tresor Mputu in the semi-finals, and we did not use special tactics.
What is it like playing in Tunisia after so many seasons in Europe?
What strikes me the most is the support and love of our fans. Taraji (the club's nickname) is more than just a team or a club, it is a sense of belonging. Anytime, anywhere, you meet people in Blood and Gold - either when you go to the bakery or when you just walk in the street - and you feel their support. Taraji transcends all the social differences. Life is difficult these days in Tunisia, though not as difficult as some in the media say, so we want to win this final for all of those people.