Esperance set up Mazembe showdown
© AFP

Defending champions TP Mazembe Englebert have in the past proven their attacking capabilities, but it was their defence that took the credit at the weekend as they reached the CAF Champions League final for a second successive year. The Congolese side will be chasing a fourth title when they meet Tunisia's Esperance in the two-legged final later this month and in November.

Esperance squeaked past Al Ahly of Egypt on the away-goals rule, with the decisive blow in Sunday’s semi-final second leg coming inside the first minute of action. The Tunisians are in the final for the first time in a decade and have the advantage of being at home for the second leg in mid-November.

Mazembe secured a 3-1 aggregate win over JS Kabylie of Algeria after a goalless away draw in Saturday’s second leg, putting up a resolute defensive performance that resulted in their hosts giving up on the match long before the final whistle.

We prepared a tactic of pressuring our opponents in front of their goal and we got an early strike.
Faouzi Benzarti, Esperance coach.

Mazembe had prepared well for the match, travelling to Algeria early and spending almost a week in north Africa before the game. Captain Pamphile Mihayo was imperious at the back along with Joel Kimwaki and Bedi Mpenza as Mazembe overcame the scare of a 21st minute effort from Nassim Oussalah which hit the upright.

Kabylie’s cause was not helped when midfielder Bilal Naili was sent off just after the hour mark after picking up a second yellow card, and in the end, the Algerians seemed to run out of ideas in their fortress at Tizi-Ouzou.

“We did not expect the injury to our defender [Idrissa] Coulibaly nor the expulsion of Naili," said JSK’s Swiss coach Alain Geiger after the 0-0 stalemate. "It skewed our calculations. We did not expect these scenarios, and they were two major events that undermined the morale of our players."

More drama in Rades
The quiet end to the that game contrasted with the drama 24 hours later at the November 11 Stadium in Rades, on the outskirts of Tunis. Al Ahly had slender 2-1 lead from a tempestuous first leg in Cairo at the start of October into a match that was always going to be a talking point.

That lead was negated after just 50 seconds as Michael Eneramo dived in full length at the back post to steer home the ball amid protests that Esperance’s Nigerian import used his arm to force the ball into the net. It proved to be the only goal of the match, but Al Ahly had Mohamed Barakat sent off after 21 minutes for lashing out at an opponent in retaliation after a tackle. Down to ten men, Ahly’s chances of comeback after that were drastically reduced.

Esperance coach Faouzi Benzarti said his side’s progress to the final was a validation his young players' ability. “We prepared a tactic of pressuring our opponent in front of their goal, and we got an early strike," he said. "We had chances to score a second goal, but unfortunately they did not come. However, we prevented Ahly from playing their game, and, for that, I congratulate my young players on their efforts.”

Esperance last reached the final in 2000 when they lost to Hearts of Oak of Ghana. They also reached the final in 1999 when they went down to Raja Casablanca of Morocco on penalties. Their only success in Africa’s top club competition came in 1994.

Mazembe will host the first leg of the final in Lubumbashi on 31 October with the return leg in Tunis on 13 November.