African Debate: An Examination Of Tunisia’s Big Four

With the Tunisian League season set to kick off on July 26th, it's time to take a look at how each of the sides have re-tooled in order to mount a title challenge...

Last season ended with Esperance lifting the Tunisian League title for a record 22nd time but the competition this year is set to be quite fierce, if one considers the efforts undertaken by their eternal rivals in the competition.

Here’s an evaluation of how each side is looking and what they have done during the off season:

Club Africain: The 'Biancorosso' were unable to defend their title last season and missed out on it by a mere three points, but it is not yet clear whether or not they will be able to repeat their past exploits under newly arrived coach Pierre Le Chantre. The Frenchman has the nearly impossible task of replacing a living legend in Abdelhak Ben Chikha.

The Algerian was called back to his homeland to coach their Olympic team a year after helping the Tunis based side become league champions, after 12 successive failed attempts. While his second season in charge was not as successful, the trainer helped the team qualify for CAF Champions League and has left Le Chantre with a solid defensive philosophy to build on, as Club Africain have the stingiest rearguard in the North African country.

Meanwhile, in terms of personnel, the most notable transfer acquisitions are those of Mehdi Meriah and Anis Boujelbene. Meriah, who joins Club Africain from Etoile, will be counted upon to fill the side’s glaring weakness on the left side of defence, while former Al-Ahly player Boujelbene will bring grit and experience to the midfield and could potentially replace the captain, Lassad Ouertani who is rumored to be on his way back to Stade Tunisien. However, the biggest story for the Bab Jedid outfit is the return of striker Youssef Mouihbi, who missed almost all of last season recovering from surgery on his ACL.

Given his technical skill, and his knack for scoring goals in difficult matches, his presence on the pitch will surely be more influential than any new recruit could be.

Etoile Sportive du Sahel: Last year was a difficult season for the Sousse based side, as they missed out on all the silverware they were chasing. In addition, the 'Red Devils' were subjected to a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of their worst enemies, Esperance, on the final day of the season, to hand their opponents the title.

The loss did not sit well with Etoile’s President, Moez Driss, who fired the coach Gernot Rohr and replaced him with Lotfi Rhim, who managed to overachieve with US Monastir and helped them reach the final of the Tunisian Cup where they fell to Club Sportif Sfaxien in the last minute of the match. The only consolation for Etoile is the fact that they are still in contention for Africa’s premiere completion, the CAF Champions League. In fact, they are the only Tunisian side left in the competition, after Club Africain were eliminated before the group stages for the second year running.

The team from the Sahel will have to reach their goal of winning the domestic championship without one of their defensive standouts, Radhouane Felhi, who was transferred to 1860 Munich. Thankfully, though, they have managed to hold on to Ammar Jemal, who has shown himself capable of not only being the emotional leader of the side but also a viable scoring threat from centre-back.

Besides their new coach, the most notable recruits for Etoile have to be Aymen Ayari, who followed Rhim from US Monastir, Chaker Zouaghi, who has returned to his club after a few years spent in Europe playing for Lokomotiv Moscow, and Gilson Silva, who is back after a successful loan spell at En Avant de Guingamp.

Ayari was one of Monastir’s main offensive weapons last season. This is high praise considering he is a left back who can also play in the centre of defence. He will replace Mehdi Meriah or Felhi, depending on the manager’s preference. Meanwhile, the technically skilled Cape Verdian, Gilson Silva, will bring his trademark flair to the wings. Both he and Zouaghi have the advantage of not needing any integration time, as they already know the club and its passionate fans intimately from past experience.

Club Sportif Sfaxien: Despite the fact that they are one of the best known teams on the continent, thanks to their exploits in the CAF Confederations Cup which they won in both 2007 and 2008, the 'Arab Juventus' have one goal in mind this season and it is to win their eighth domestic title.

The team from Sfax, the southern capital of Tunisia, have often been blamed for looking almost unrecognizable when they play African opponents. Their inability to replicate their continental form in the league has baffled analysts for years but club officials are hopeful that the signing of coach Azzedine Ait Djoudi from Algeria’s ES Setif will be enough to change their fortunes.

However, given the player’s they have lost in the off-season, things will not be easy for the new manager. The team’s captain, Issam Merdassi, recently left for Young Boys of Berne in Switzerland, while another crucial player, Soumah Naby, has also switched to a European side. Add to that the possibility of Hamdi Rouid finding takers on the old continent and that’s potentially three veterans less for Sfaxien.

Nevertheless, the black and white outfit are well known for their excellent scouts and are famous for bringing in fresh talent for next to nothing. This time around they have brought in former Esperance talisman Kamel Zaiem to replace Naby in midfield, as well as Orok Akarendut from Nigeria’s Aqua United to add some much needed firepower up front.

Esperance Sportive de Tunis
: The defending Tunisian champions are coming off an incredible season during which they celebrated the 90th birthday of the club in the best of ways, winning three of the four titles they were playing for. The wisest decision thus far from Esperance officials has been not to disturb the chemistry created between the player’s by Faouzi Benzarti, who returned to the side last season to transform them into winners, when they were losing their way under Jose De Morais.

The only departure that is worth mentioning is that of their starting goalkeeper, Hamdi Kasraoui, who joined RC Lens on a three year contract. The player, who happens to be the national team’s current number one, will be missed for his leadership and positive attitude. However, thankfully for the 'Blood and Gold', there is a solid glovesman who can take his place in Arbi Mejri.

As far as acquisitions go, the team has not gone on a massive spending spree, given that they have some of the best talent Tunisia has to offer at their disposal. Perhaps their biggest feat has been to not be tempted to sell midfield maestro Ousemma Darragi to the many interested European sides who were tracking him. In addition, Saber Khlifa returns from his year-long loan to CSHL, where he progressed quite a bit. The player showed as much in a recent friendly, scoring four out of six Esperance goals.

With him in such fine form, Esperance are certainly not likely to be found wanting in the striking department. Especially as they have last year’s leading scorer in Michael Eneramo and Skander Ayari, who did great things during the Mediterranean Games in Pescara this summer.

Given the efforts undertaken by each of Tunisia’s big four, it is entirely possible that we will see the tightest league race ever, as all of the clubs can foster legitimate aspirations to lift the golden eagle trophy at the end of this season.

Rami Ayari, Goal.com