Fireworks await in first leg
© AFP

Lubumbashi’s Stade Kenya on Sunday will stage the first act in a two-part drama to decide this year’s CAF Champions League and a place at the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi at the end of the year.

Holders TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo host the first leg as they try to successfully defend their title, a feat only achieved three times previously in more than four decades of competition. Trying to deny them are ambitious Esperance of Tunisia, winners of the top club prize in Africa on just a single previous occasion despite being a consistent force on the continental club competition circuit. It is a classic clash between the potential of clubs south of the Sahara against the force that is the more professionally driven teams from the Arabic-speaking north.

Our strategy is to give them the confidence to attack us. We want to press and to score too, and the most important thing for me is to get an away goal.
Esperance coach Faouzi Benzarti

While Esperance have consistently plugged away until eventually reaching the final again after a decade away, Mazembe have had their fortunes dramatically revived in recent years by the patronage of Moise Katumbi, the governor from their mineral-rich province of Katanga and the club’s President. His passion for the team and the corresponding return of The Crows (Les Corbeaux) are seen as closely linked to his political success.

Mazembe have been dealing with two key players on long-term suspension, and they made a dramatic coaching switch – bringing in Senegal’s Lamine N’Diaye for France’s Diego Garzitto – towards the end of the group phase of this year’s competition. On the other hand, Esperance have turned to the man who guided them to their only previous success in the competition, way back in 1994.

Esperance looking to history
Faouzi Benzarti was coach when Esperance won Africa's most prestigious club trophy 3-1 on aggregate over two legs against Zamalek, and 16 years later he has returned for what is a fourth spell at the club to again guide the Blood and Gold (Sang et Or) in the final. The 60-year-old has enjoyed the lion’s share of attention in the build-up to Sunday’s final, and he says that this weekend’s away leg could well decide the final, even with the return match to come in Tunisia on Saturday, 13 November.

A bit of history closer to the present will also buoy Esperance, who had the better of it when the two sides were in the same group in the league phase of this year’s tournament. Mazembe won 2-1 in Lubumbashi in August, but an emphatic 3-0 win for Esperance in Tunis two weeks later cost former coach Garzitto his job.

His replacement, N’Diaye, has done well to keep the consistency going since the switch. Benzarti says Garzitto’s team was more attack-minded, and Esperance might well have won in Lubumbashi had it not been for chances missed by the likes of strike pair Oussama Darragi, Michael Eneramo and midfielder Majdi Traoui. “With the new coach, Mazembe no longer play the same way. They are more balanced but they will look for the chances to attack us,” said the veteran Benzarti. “Our strategy is to give them the confidence to attack us. We want to press and to score too, and the most important thing for me is to get an away goal.”

Mazembe’s ease of progress past Algeria’s JS Kabylie in the semi-finals, and indeed their qualification for the last four, swept aside notions that the team were too heavily reliant on Tresor Mputu, the striker who has been their talisman over the last years. Mputu and Guy Lusadisu, another regular, received a lengthy ban after being found guilty of attempting an attack on a referee at a regional club tournament earlier this year. But when the ban was imposed in August, Mazembe barely skipped a beat.

TP Mazembe were the first team to successfully defend Africa’s club competition when they won in 1967 and 1968. It took almost 40 years for that achievement to be matched by Enyimba of Nigeria in 2003 and 2004. Egypt’s Al Ahly then won the next two editions in 2005 and 2006. Mazembe beat Heartland of Nigeria last year on away goals thanks to an own-goal late in the second leg to return to the summit of African club football.

Along with their 1994 success, Esperance have twice been runners-up in the event, which came in back-to-back seasons in 1999 and 2000. They also reached the semi-final stage three times between 2001 and 2004.