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Caf Champions League final: Wydad Casablanca and Esperance set for showdown

8:23 PM EDT 5/23/19
Franck Kom Esperance
The North African giants are set to collide in Friday’s first leg

Wydad Casablanca and Esperance are set to collide in the first leg of the 2019 Caf Champions League final on Friday, when they meet at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in Rabat.

The two North African heavyweights are the last sides standing following a gruelling continental campaign, yet both have deserved another final appearance following their recent successes.

For the first time in the history of the Champions League, the semi-finals were comprised of the last four tournament winners, with Wydad pitted against Mamelodi Sundowns and Esperance squaring off with Tout Puissant Mazembe.

It was the two most recent winners—2017 champions Wydad and cup holders Esperance—who prevailed, and there can be little doubt that this year’s final is the meeting of Africa’s two strongest teams over the last 30 months.

Esperance have had the more convincing run to the final; they were the only team not to lost a match in the group stage—taking 14 points after being pooled with Horoya, Orlando Pirates and FC Platinum.

They subsequently dispatched Algeria’s CS Constantine in the quarter-finals, admittedly conceding three over both legs in a 6-3 aggregate victory, and then narrowly snuck past Mazembe in the semis.

Youcef Belaili—Esperance’s outstanding player in this year’s edition of the Caf CL—scored the only goal of the tie, in the 51st minute of the first leg, before the Tunisians held their nerve—and their opponents—to secure an admirable 0-0 draw away in Lubumbashi in the second leg.

Wydad, by contrast, stuttered during the group stage, although admittedly, they were pooled with former champions Sundowns and ASEC Mimosas, as well as a talented Lobi Stars side.

They overcame away defeats in South Africa and the Ivory Coast to top the group, and smashed poor Horoya—winning 5-0 at home—in the quarter-finals.

A much sterner test is anticipated in the semis—and a rematch against a Downs side who had eclipsed Al-Ahly in the quarters—but a home victory in the first leg was enough after a second leg draw away in Pretoria.

Both of these two heavyweights will be aiming to repeat their semi-final strategy in the final; to win at home and to hold their opponents away.

The final will be a special occasion for Wydad coach Faouzi Benzarti, who led Esperance to the 1994 African Cup of Champions Clubs title, 25 years ago.

He’ll be boosted by the anticipated return of star full-back Mohamed Nahiri—who has a whopping five goals this campaign—from suspension.

Mohamed Ounajem and Amin Tighazoui are injury concerns.

“We are motivated to take lead to Tunisia,” Wydad’s Nigeria midfielder Michael Babatunde told journalists, as per The Nation.

“Of course, we are expecting the toughest match of the season against Esperance, they have good record in the Champions League and we must be disciplined enough to assure ourselves a victory. That is what the fans want from us.

“Hard work has taken us to this level, and we need to do more to get over the Esperance, we urge our fans for maximum support, and with them we are going to rewrite history.

“It is not time for revenge, we only want to win the trophy.”

Esperance, by contrast, will await—with some trepidation—fitness news about their star forward Taha Yassine Khenissi, whose presence could be critical in their bid to become the fourth club to retain the title.

Remarkably, the Tunisian side are closing in on two back-t0-back Champions League campaigns without losing a single match, having become the fifth side to go unbeaten in a single season last term.