One of the dominant sides in Tunisian football, Esperance Sportive de Tunis will attempt to unseat holders TP Mazembe Englebert in a two-legged final for the right to be crowned winners of the CAF Champions League. With the first leg looming this weekend, North African hopes against the Congolese are firmly planted with an emerging star from south of the Sahara: Nigerian striker Michael Eneramo.
Currently top scorer in the continental club showpiece with eight goals, as well as in the Tunisian league with five goals from five outings, Eneramo has been the stout stake at the heart of the Blood and Gold’s attack around which everything flows. While acknowledging his blistering form, the 24-year-old is determined to keep his trajectory solidly upward even as the competition gets more challenging.
“I have won the Tunisian league top scorer award twice,” he recently told African Football Media. “My target now is to be top scorer in the CAF Champions League and for my team to win the final. I have said I would like to score ten goals in the competition to be high scorer, which should be enough for us to win the trophy. And I believe that will improve my chances of taking my game to Europe finally.”
Eneramo’s importance has not been lost on his fellow team-mates. “He is a very skilful player, and he can call on a lot of strengths, so he is always putting pressure on the opposition defenders,” said young Esperance defender Syam Ben Youssef, who credited training against the “physical” Nigerian as an added bonus in his development. He also praised Eneramo’s personality: “Michael is a kind of entertainer in the group. He enjoys a good atmosphere in the dressing room, which is important.”
Some downs with the ups
Positively brimming with pace, power and comfort on the ball, Eneramo has added strength in the box and lethality of finishing to his repertoire. He has been linked with a move to Europe for the last few seasons, and he is on the radar of enough clubs for this winter to possibly be the time of his breakthrough. This thinking has gained momentum after some bittersweet moments for the Kaduna native both with his club and national team.
Most notable, he tallied the only goal of the semi-final second leg that sent the Tunisians into the final at the expense of six-time African champions Al Ahly. Coming in the first minute of a feisty 1-0 win, it was both a dramatic and controversial moment for Eneramo, who dismissed cries of handball after the match. “I don’t really know what to say,” he said. “I saw the cross and went with my head. I just saw the goal, and I didn’t know how it happened. It was a reflex, but I am very happy. It doesn’t matter how I score. If the ball is in the net and the referee says it’s a goal then it’s a goal.”
Although he was rumoured to have drawn interest from the Tunisian FA as a potential forward for the Carthage Eagles, Eneramo made his national team debut instead for the Super Eagles in a pair of friendlies early in 2009. As one of the last players cut from the teams before both the CAF Africa Cup of Nations and the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, he has failed to fully mesh in the Nigerian set-up. A glaring miss in the first half of the recent Cup of Nations loss at Guinea won’t help his cause. Eneramo has also been embroiled in a disagreement over the Esperance captaincy, which was previously his but was given to fellow striker Oussama Darragi this term. “I have put that behind me, and I’m not really interested in the armband,” he said with a shrug. “I was informed I will no longer be team captain.”
Edges favour Esperance
Regardless of those concerns, Eneramo has formed a world-class co-operative with both the highly touted Darragi and attacking midfielder Wajdi Bouazzi. The Tunisian pair have accounted for five goals each in the Champions League, with Darragi claiming the all-important away goal in the first leg against Al Ahly.
With Darragi recovered from a recent hamstring injury, the triumvirate are set to form a live-wire attack against the three-time African champions. Mazembe’s Senegalese coach Lamine N’Diaye played down the threat to his side at home in the first leg this Sunday before he admitted Eneramo in the context of the team was quite dangerous.
“Esperance are not made of two or three players, believe me,” he said this week. “It would be a mistake for us to concentrate only on Eneramo, but it also would be a mistake not to closely watch him. Clearly, he is an important player, and he represents a big danger for the defenders. He is very precise in front of the goal, and he rarely misses the target. But again, Esperance are a strong team, so we must take a look at all of them to limit his influence. We need to cut the pipeline, the link between the midfielders providing the assists and the strikers.”
The second leg will take place in Tunis the weekend of 12 November, and the winner of the tie will represent Africa at the FIFA Club World Cup in UAE this December. Esperance won the event in 1994 and reached the final in both 1999 and 2000.