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30.05.2019 Africa

Esperance coach and team seek CAF Champions League title, records

By AFP
Ghailene Chaalali (L) of Esperance Tunis holds off
Walid el Karti of Wydad Casablanca during the first leg of the 2019 CAF Champions League final in Rabat.  By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File)
MAY 30, 2019 AFRICA
Ghailene Chaalali (L) of Esperance Tunis holds off Walid el Karti of Wydad Casablanca during the first leg of the 2019 CAF Champions League final in Rabat. By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File)

Coach Moine Chaabani and his Esperance Tunis team will create records Friday if they retain the CAF Champions League trophy after the second leg of the final against Wydad Casablanca.

The Tunisian club may not even need a victory to achieve their goals -- a 0-0 draw will suffice to win the elite African club competition on away goals after the first leg finished 1-1 in Morocco.

Should Esperance be crowned African champions a fourth time, Chaabani will become the first north African coach to secure back-to-back Champions League titles.

That would be a massive achievement for a 37-year-old catapulted last year into one of the hottest seats in African club football after Esperance lost a semi-final first leg.

They overturned the deficit at home to Angolans Primeiro Agosto and staged another dramatic second-leg recovery in the final to defeat famed Egyptian club Al Ahly.

Holding Wydad in Rabat last weekend extended to 11 matches the unbeaten run of Esperance since the 2019 CAF season kicked off, and pushed the Tunis outfit closer to another record.

If they overcome Wydad, the Tunisian club named after a cafe where it was formed 100 years will be the first to complete two Champions League-winning campaigns undefeated.

Even the 2005-2008 Al Ahly squad -- the most successful African club in the modern era with a bevy of stars led by Mohamed Abou Trika -- managed that feat just once.

While Chaabani and his multi-national squad cannot avoid the burden of being favourites, the coach has urged caution ahead of the second leg at the 60,000-seat Stade Olympique near Tunis.

"I wish we had returned from Morocco with a victory," he said, recalling a first leg in which Wydad had captain Brahim Nakach red-carded just after half-time for a reckless tackle.

"Ironically, we were more successful in the first half when facing 11 opponents than in the second half when Wydad were a man short.

"We dare not assume the second leg is a foregone conclusion. I accept that we are the media favourites, but Champions League finals are littered with unexpected results.

'Wydad a great team'

"Wydad are a great team and they have a great coach in Faouzi Benzarti. There is all to play for in the return match and I hope Esperance succeed."

Chaabani was not born when Benzarti, the 69-year-old elder figure among African coaches, began his illustrious coaching career in 1979.

Benzarti is the most successful African coach in CAF competitions with his five titles including the one that made Esperance champions 25 years ago.

"I repeat what I said ahead of the first leg -- small details are going to decide which club becomes champions," said Benzarti.

"The first leg was very tight -- even when we were a man down -- with both goals coming after free-kicks.

"This Esperance team is composed of outstanding footballers who have been playing together for several seasons. They know my style, and I know theirs.

Egyptian referee Gehad Grisha tries to restore order during the first leg.  By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File) Egyptian referee Gehad Grisha tries to restore order during the first leg. By FADEL SENNA (AFP/File)

"I believe we are in for another tight match and my players are physically and mentally prepared for whatever comes."

What probably lies ahead for Wydad is a battle for survival as they have not beaten Esperance in three previous CAF visits to Tunis, drawing once and losing twice.

Experienced Gambian referee Bakary Gassama will need to stamp out any hints of ill discipline with Nakach the most serious offender in Rabat, but not the only one.

Apart from the red card, first-leg referee Gehad Grisha from Egypt cautioned seven players and had to make two tough VAR calls, one of which cancelled a Wydad goal before half-time.

Moroccan officials were so angry with the refereeing that they lodged a protest and CAF said this week that Grisha had been suspended for six months because of a "poor performance".

The Champions League winners will pocket $2.5 million (2.25 mn euros) and qualify for a Super Cup match at home to Zamalek of Egypt, winners of the second-tier Confederation Cup.

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