Esperance out to join elite group
© AFP

Tunisian club Esperance de Tunis are hoping to join an elite group of three other clubs that have lifted the African club crown in successive years. Ironically the team that stands in their way in Saturday's return leg in the Rades Stadium - Egypt's Al Ahly - is one of the other clubs that has managed back-to-back titles (in 2005/6), with the others being TP Mazembe (1967/8 and 2010/11) and Enyimba (2003/4).

The Blood and Gold hold the upper hand in the CAF Champions League finale, having drawn the first leg in Egypt 1-1. However, the home side will be wary of the fate which befell Tunisian rivals CS Sfaxien, who in 2006 also played out a 1-1 draw against Al Ahly in Egypt, but then lost the return leg 1-0 in the Rades Stadium.

The Al Ahly defence has conceded 10 goals in nine matches in the group phase, and subsequent knock-out stage of the competition, and will once again be without regular left-back Sayed Moawad. The international, who missed the first leg and has not sufficiently recovered, has been ruled out of the game. The team doctor Ehab Ali told the club's website that the 33-year-old was suffering from knee tendon inflammation. “Even if he recovered in time for the game, he would not be physically ready to play.” Moawad's place is likely to be taken by Sherif Abdel Fadil, who already played in the first leg.

Also not making the trip are former Esperance player Oussou Konan and winger Ahmed Shoukri. The Côte d'Ivoire striker has failed to get regular playing time since joining the Egyptian giants, while Shoukri only plays a bit-role in coach Hossam El Badry's plans. Veteran defender Wael Gomaa is aware that it will be a massive undertaking for the Egyptian champions, who have won the tournament a record-breaking six times, if they are to lift their first continental trophy since 2008.

"Our task is not easy. It would be a miracle if we won this trophy because of the many problems we are encountering. There is no league, no matches, no fans - all of that surely takes a toll on the team. Naturally, the team should play regular matches in order to be fully ready, but this is not the case," the 37-year-old said, adding that he does see some advantages for the Red Devils. "We are better in terms of attacking individuals, so if they attack with the intent of avoiding Sfaxien’s fate, we can expose their gaps and score. I think the fan pressure will be on Esperance if we manage to score first."

Questions for hosts as well
Like in the first leg, officials have again placed a limit on the number of fans that will be allowed in the stadium and only 35,000 will be permitted in the 65,000-seater. Several fan groupings of Esperance's local rivals have already said that they will make sure that they get entry to the stadium to cheer for Al Ahly.

Even though Tunisia coach Sami Trabelsi left out six Esperance players from his squad that slumped to a 2-1 midweek defeat against Switzerland to avoid possible injuries, the home side will still be missing a number of players for Saturday's match. Midfielder Mejdi Traoui is the latest who had to pull out. He joins Ghana defender Harrison Afful, who scored the winner in last year's final against Wydad Casablanca, and Sameh Derbali, both of whom are suspended. Wunderkind Youssef Msakni has also been ruled out, while his attack-minded brother Iheb is doubtful as is Cameroonian striker Joseph Yannick Ndjeng.

The competition's top scorer Emmanuel Clottey, who scored 12 times, is not eligible to play for the Blood and Gold as he joined Esperance from Berekum Chelsea midseason and is cup-tied. The Ghanaian will be on the sidelines cheering his side on, knowing that the winner will represent the continent at the prestigious FIFA Club World Cup next month. "I can’t play. All I can do is pray and hope we do beat them so that we can go to the Club World Cup. It’s a very big tournament and the whole world will be watching. It would be fantastic to play at the tournament,” Clottey said.

Goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia was the man of the match in the first leg, keeping his side in the game with a number of breath-taking saves that denied the Al Ahly players. He is certainly the man Al Ahly will have to beat at least once if they want to return to Egypt triumphant. Given the outstanding form that the 21-year-old has at the moment, that alone could be a significant challenge for the Red Devils.