Esperance ready to climb a mountain

Miracles do exist as far as Esperance coach Faouzi Benzarti is concerned, and he is clinging to the hope his club might do the near impossible at the weekend and salvage the CAF Champions League title.

But Benzarti will certainly be in a minority of hardened optimists as his Tunisian club prepare to host Saturday’s second leg of this year’s final, down five goals from two weeks ago in the first match against TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But an imposing wall for the hosts to climb might have some steps after all, suggests the veteran coach. According to Benzarti his players are still smarting from the lopsided defeat in the first leg in Lubumbashi last month, where several controversial decisions left the Tunisians frustrated. “We know we need a miracle but I can see it happening,” he said at a press conference on the eve of the final at the 7 November Stadium in Rades, just on the outskirts of the capital Tunis. “The players are determined. We started to prepare for the return game as soon as we climbed on the plane in Congo (to head home). I’ve never seen so much frustration and injustice, we have been given motivation by what happened in the first leg,” he continued.

We remember well our game when we won 3-0 against them in the group phase without much exertion.
Esperance forward Osama Darragi on his team's previous success against Mazembe

Esperance‘s chagrin comes mainly from the opening goal of the first leg of the final, scored after 17 minutes in Lubumbashi by Mazembe’s Ngandu Kasongo, whose header from Patou Kabungu’s free kick was adjudged to have crossed the goal line, even though the Tunisian visitors were not convinced. Esperance then had defender Mohamed Ben Mansour sent off for an off-the-ball incident, and their remaining 10 men folded like a deck of cards as Mazembe went on a goal-scoring rampage.

Congolese shooting for history
However, for the Tunisians there is also a begrudging admission that they were outplayed in the first leg and that their opponents were formidable in equalling the 42-year-old record for the biggest winning margin in a leg of the final of Africa’s top club competition.

“This will be a tough game,” conceded Esperance’s playmaker Oussama Darragi. “TP Mazembe are not easy to handle, but we remember well our game when we won 3-0 against them in the group phase without much exertion. We remain focused and we will enjoy the backing of our beloved fans.” Darragi, whose talismanic qualities make him one of Esperance’s potential trump cards, will have more motivation than most after being sacrificed in the first half of the first leg, taken off after Ben Mansour’s dismissal so Benzarti could bring another defender on.

“It will not be easy as they will play defensively,” predicted 25-year-old midfielder Khaled Korbi, but Mazembe’s approach may will be intriguing because the five-goal cushion affords them the opportunity to possibly coast through the second leg en route to a second successive Champions League title, their fourth overall. However, a 10-day-long camp in Belgium to prepare for the return match suggests a determination to chase after the record for the biggest winning margin in any African club competition final. That was set in 1979 in the now-defunct African Cup Winners’ Cup when Cameroon’s Canon Yaounde won by an 8-0 aggregate score against Kenya’s Gor Mahia.