Final showdown for 'inseparables' Esperance, Wydad
African Champions League 'inseparables' Esperance of Tunisia and Wydad Casablanca of Morocco meet again on Saturday and this time there has to be a winner.
A win for Wydad or a score draw in the second leg of the final and the Moroccans raise the trophy, pocket 1.5 million dollars and secure a place the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan during December.
Victory for the Tunisians and they take the spoils while a repeat of the goalless first leg in Casablanca last Sunday and the biggest club fixture on the continent goes down to a penalty shoot-out.
Each club won the competition once in the 1990s when it was called the African Champions Cup and Esperance have lost three finals since, including a humiliating 6-1 thrashing last year from Democratic Republic of Congo outfit TP Mazembe.
Neither team has a proud record in Confederation of African Football (CAF) finals with Esperance winning four of eight for a 50 percent success rate and Wyad only two of five for a 40 percent rate.
But all those failures will be forgotten by the side that emerges triumphant from the fourth Champions League clash between them in as many months following 2-2 and 0-0 stalemates in Morocco and a 0-0 deadlock in Tunisia.
The first leg followed a predictable pattern until the closing stages with a Wydad team encouraged by a 70,000 crowd at the Mohammed V Stadium controlling possession and creating a few scoring chances.
Defender Yassine Rami and Congo Brazzaville-born sharp-shooter Fabrice Ondama went closest for the 'Red and whites' while goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia produced several spectacular saves for the 'Blood and Gold'.
Esperance coach Nabil Maaloul has proved a master tactician during the campaign and his second-half introduction of offensive midfielder Oussama Darragi had a significant impact.
Club captain Darragi created space and fellow midfielders Mejdi Traoui and Khaled Mouelhi were not far off target as the visitors sought the away victory that would have virtually guaranteed them becoming African champions a second time.
"My players are determind to win the Champions League this year and engrave their names in Tunisian football history. This is a very special match for a club that has been chasing this trophy for a long time," stressed 49-year-old Maaloul.
After winning the domestic league and cup double, success over Wydad would complete a memorable year for Esperance just 12 months after suffering a record-equalling overall loss in the Champions League final.
Wydad handler Michel Decastel is Swiss, six years older than Maaloul, greyer around the temples, and spent a season with Esperance during a coaching career that has taken him to several African countries.
He remains optimistic that Wydad can emulate neighbours Raja Casablanca, who were held 0-0 by Esperance in the 1999 final only to force a similar result on the road and win 4-3 on penalties.
"An injury to our brilliant striker Mouhssine Iajour during the first leg left us with only one outright attacker for much of the game. The return match will be different and we have every chance of success," he insisted.
Experienced Iajour and younger Ondama have snatched five goals each in the Champions League and appear the biggest threats to an Esperance defence featuring Cameroonian giant Yaya Banana.
Esperance midfielder Youssef Msakni has also struck five Champions League goals during the 10-month campaign and Darragi and another Cameroonian import, Yannick Ndjeng, four apiece.
Despite what Raja achieved 12 years ago, tradition favours Esperance with eight of 10 clubs who forced a goalless away draw in the first leg of the final going on to lift a trophy that symbolises continental supremacy.
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