Heading into Friday’s Caf Champions League final first leg, Esperance appear to be firm outsiders, with Al-Ahly appearing in pole position to claim their record-extending ninth continental title.
There are several key reasons why the Tunisians aren’t favourites for this one, and not just because of their underwhelming final track record against the Red Devils.
Indeed, this year’s showpiece is a rematch of the 2012 final, when Ahly won 3-2 on aggregate after drawing 1-1 in Alexandria before defeating Esperance away in Rades.
Who are your favourites for the @CAF_Online Champions League final?— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) October 25, 2018
Ahly are also ahead in the recent form guide between the two sides, who met during the group stage of this year’s tournament.
Despite holding Ahly 0-0 away in Alexandria in May, before the arrival of French coach Patrice Carteron, Esperance were undone at home in August, with the new-revived Red Devils taking a 1-0 victory in Rades.
It’s a defeat that may yet come as a psychological blow for the Tunisian heavyweights.
They’ll also be aware that they’ve demonstrated vulnerabilities consistently throughout this competition, although this isn’t totally surprising considering the club have seen two head coaches depart in the last 10 months.
They conceded three goals in the space of two home games against Botswana’s Township Rollers and KCCA FC of Uganda—two opponents who cannot compete with Esperance in terms of resources—and ultimately missed out on topping their group.
It could have proved costly, and they weren’t at their best when they faced local rivals ESS in the quarter-final, relying on a late Fousseny Coulibaly winner in the second leg to finally put the tie to bed.
It was in the semis that they received their biggest shock yet, as Primeiro de Agosto looked set to follow up on their giant-killing of Tout Puissant Mazembe in the Last Eight with another headline-grabbing triumph.
The Angolans won in front of their own fans, and then twice took a two-goal advantage in the tie, also giving themselves a major edge on away goals.
Esperance’s defensive vulnerabilities in front of their own fans had again become apparent, but as did the side’s ‘grinta’, as two goals inside the last 17 minutes—from Haythem Jouini and Anice Badri—took them into the final.
The weaknesses are there, and Ahly will look to exploit them, but Esperance have demonstrated qualities too, and may feel quietly confident that they can pull off an upset.
While their home support have seen them ship too many goals in Caf competition so far this year, they’re among the most vocal and passionate in North Africa, and will be desperate to see their team prevail…particularly against Africa’s biggest side.
Playing the second leg at home—as Esperance are doing—is typically seen as an advantageous, and if the Tunisians can frustrate Ahly in Alexandria on Friday, they’ll put themselves in good stead to get over the line at home.
In both legs, when either playing on the break or expected to impose themselves a little more, they have the offensive talent to trouble Carteron’s side.
Youcef Belaili is one of the top players playing in North Africa at the moment, and his interplay with Badri has been one of the highlights of their performances in recent months.
The latter didn’t impress for Tunisia during the World Cup, but his versatility and ability to arrive late in the box make him a key asset.
The duo were influential in the comeback against Agosto, and it will be intriguing to see how Carteron can answer their dual threat.
Taha Yassine Khenissi may be out of form, but he remains a big-game player who has considerable experience both in continental and international arenas, while Jouini is in hot form and appears primed to make the most of the opportunity afforded him.
Indeed, after coming off the bench against Agosto, Jouini was arguably the key inspiration behind Esperance’s comeback, and could be the man to prompt a similarly mouth-watering attacking display against Ahly.
Expect Esperance’s full-backs — Ayman Ben Mohamed and Samah Derbali — to also be key attacking weapons, with the latter particularly comfortable in offensive areas.
However, their true value may well be seen in the second match, where home advantage should encourage Esperance to take the game to their opponents.
Behind the forwards, the midfield trio of Fousseny Coulibaly and internationals Franck Kom and Ghaylen Chaaleli are among the best operators still playing in Africa.
All offer defensive qualities, and while Chaaleli may lack the physique and the presence of the sub-Saharan African duo, he excels as a box-to-box midfielder and boasts a mean strike from distance.
Ultimately, their key strength may well be their desire and determination; the ‘grinta’ that gives them the edge over their opponents and the character that saw them see off Agosto and claim the Tunisian title despite the upheaval in the dugout.