All-Tunisian final in store
Taieb Mhiri Stadium in the eastern Tunisian merchant city of Sfax is never going to feature among the great African football venues. It has an official capacity of just 18,000 and modern is not a word that would feature in a description of the home to CS Sfaxien, a member of the 'big four' who have dominated the national club scene for decades.
But even the most successful and popular football club on the continent, Al-Ahly from Egypt, cannot boast a home record to match that of African Confederation Cup title holders Sfaxien. They have staged 13 matches at Taieb Mhiri over two campaigns in the African equivalent of the European UEFA Cup and won every one, sometimes by handsome margins against high-profile opposition like Cotonsport Garoua of Cameroon.
And it is there on Saturday that Sfaxien will host fellow Tunisians Etoile Sahel in the first leg of a final certain to create history, as the winners will become the first club to lift the trophy twice. Sfaxien exceeded expectations in the 2007 final by winning home and away against Al-Merreikh of Sudan to succeed Etoile, who edged Moroccan military club FAR Rabat on away goals after a stormy return encounter.
The odds on an all-Tunisia decider this year were never too long with Tunis giants and former African competition winners Esperance and Club Africain also contenders. Esperance were eliminated by Etoile at the play-off stage, and Club Africain fell away in their final two outings to finish third in Group A five points adrift of consistent Sfaxien.
Etoile are marginal favourites to succeed over two legs despite a recent coaching upheaval that saw Swiss Michel Decastel fired for poor early season league results, although the 'Red Devils' did not lose in six fixtures. Into one of the 'hottest' club seats in Africa on a temporary basis comes Frenchman Herve Gauthier, 59, previously technical director of a club based north of Sfax in the Mediterranean resort of Sousse.
Gauthier got the boost of a winning start last weekend with an Ammar al-Jemal goal sufficient to secure maximum league points at lowly Kasserine. Sfaxien also struck early in the second half to triumph against visiting EGS Gafsa, with tall Côte d'Ivoire-born striker Blaise Kouassi once more cast in the role of matchwinner.
A strength of Sfaxien is the range of potential scorers, with 13 of the squad, led by four-goal midfielder Abdelkrim Nafti, contributing to a haul of 21 en route to the showdown with Etoile.
Nigerian Emeka Opara, back at Sahel after playing in Germany, is the leading Etoile marksman with three goals followed by Mohamed Ali Nafkha, whose stoppage time effort against JS Kabylie of Algeria sealed a final place.
Sousse will stage the return match on November 22 and the victors collect $330,000, plus a crack at the CAF Champions League holders next February for the African Super Cup.