With the first legs of the CAF Champions League semi-finals less than a week away, Sandals For Goalposts profiles the four clubs in with a chance of claiming Africa’s most prized club gong. First, Salim Masoud Said - 'SMS' - takes a look at defending champions Esperance.Club: Esperance Country: Tunisia CAF CL record: Winners: 1994, 2011 Runners-up: 1999, 2000, 2010 The Status Quo On the balance of their performances thus far in the competition, Esperance, the defending champions, are by far the most well-balanced team in the competition. They have the prerequisite equilibrium and nucleus that nearly all successful side need - an impregnable defensive partnership, added with a congruous defensive unit in general; the essential good cop-bad cop midfield pivot; stardust to stimulate wide-eyed amazement; and the reference point(s) to do what football is ultimately about: signing, sealing and delivering the ball into the net.
Indeed, their 19-game unbeaten run in the competition, and their quest to retain the unprecendented treble they won last year still being on course (after wrapping up the Tunisian Championship on Sunday), attests that they deserve to be in the upper reaches of the African Football Hype-o-meter.
Group A (Esperance, Sunshine Stars, Etoile du Sahel and ASO Chlef) may have lacked the grandeur of Group B (Al Ahly, TP Mazembe, Zamalek and Berekum Chelsea) therefore the Esperance iconoclasts will rightly point to the quality of the opposition they’ve faced, but the Blood and Gold have gone about their business with consummate professionalism and have encountered feeble trouble – well, apart from crowd trouble against rivals Etoile, which saw them thrown out of the competition.
The only stutter came in their final group game dead rubber 1-0 defeat to Algerian side ASO Chlef, where avoiding defeat would have seen them go unbeaten for 20 games – a new CAF Champions League record. This begs the question: have they lost their aura of invincibility as a result? The mitigating circumstance for the defeat is that the spine of the team was rested, and by the time Messrs Msakni and N’Djeng were brought on to salvage the record they were without the creative intelligence of Khaled Mouelhi to supply them from midfield.
Despite the stutter they have qualified as group winners and face 2009 and 2010 CAF CL winners TP Mazembe, a tie which stimulates a smoldering narrative: Esperance alerted the governing bodies that the Congolese team had fielded an ineligible player v Simba in the 2011 CAF CL preliminaries, TP Mazembe were subsequently disqualified from the competition. In addition to that, TP Mazembe mutilated the Tunisians 5-0 in 2010, which only adds further sizzle to the narrative. (It is worth noting that centre back Mohamed Ben Mansour was sent off in the 24th minute, Esperance were 1-0 down at that point, and, for what it’s worth, the result came in TP Mazembe’s old stadium. Six of the eleven that started that match are still at Esperance.)
The avuncular club legend Nabil Maaloul, now in his second spell in charge after stepping down when Esperance suffered the ignominy of finishing last in the World Club Championship last December, favours the omnipresent 4-2-3-1 system. The centre of defence is marshalled by the tough and lofty Walid Hicheri and Mohamed Ben Mansour, two henchmen who use their physicality and aerial superiority to their advantage, whilst Moez Ben Cherifia behind them is a burgeoning custodian. The affable captain Khalil Chammam is unspectacular but a solid left back, whilst right-back Samih Derbali has a penchant for a raid forward. The protean Ghanaian Harrison Afful, who scored the decisive goal in last year’s final, has also played in the full-back positions as well as on the right wing.
A strong spine is reinforced by Khaled Mouelhi, a wonderfully unobtrusive play-breaker and play-maker who ahas the sang-froid to feed the ball into the attackers ahead of him and the responsibility to dispatch the penalty kicks. If Mouelhi supplies the brains then Mejdi Traoui supplies the brawns to give the core of the defence added protection.
The pizzazz and stardust is provided by Youssef Msakni and, to a lesser extent, Youcef Belaili. The latter, who joined the club in May, is a relatively new arrival whilst Msakni has a brilliant understanding with the broad-chested Cameroon forward Yannick Joseph N’Djeng, a master-of-all-trades striker who magnificently holds the ball up. Stop Msakni and you’re 80% there, but Msakni is not called ‘Messi-akni’ for nothing – the Tunisian starlet glides past defenders with that remarkable ease – that nanosecond swing of the hips to leave defenders for dead – of a professional, efficient trickster playing Sunday league football.
Another chance to eulogise about Msakni? Oh. okay! The svelte Youssef Msakni, who scored 17 goals in 27 appearances in Esperance’s league triumph, is undoubtedly the bright, shining star of the team. He is usually roaming from a wide-left role with ghostly faux innocence but suddenly explodes into life when the ball is at his feet with ziggy-zaggy surgical stabs at the heart of defences. The 21-year-old, who will join Qatari champions Lekhwiya next January, will be hoping he can end his stint in the Blood and Gold on a high.
One to watch
The midfield pivot of Khaled Mouelhi and Mejdi Traoui diligently carry the water so Msakni can walk on it. It’s difficult to think of them as individuals but Mouelhi is a delight to watch in his usage of the ball and spatial awareness – think Paul Scholes with a shisha pipe and blessed with tackling etiquette.
Can they come through the hostility of Lubumbashi unscathed; can they put aside the psychological scarring of the 5-0 drubbing? It is very tight to call but much will depend on that first leg. Given TP Mazembe’s formidable home record, our prediction is Esperance will bow out in the semi-finals.