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CAF Watch: Esperance Sportive de Tunis

With Esperance playing Gor Mahia this weekend, a lot is being mentioned about the prospects of this match. Unfortunately, little detailed information is being given about ‘taraji’- as Esperance is affectionately called.

 It shows how little Kenyans follow continental club football. Therefore, being an ardent fan of CAF club football (and frustrated by how naively Esperance is being lowly rated) I have decided to give an intro on them ahead of the weekend fixture.

Esperance are a hugely decorated side, third in the continent by total accolades won, hence they carry a lot of institutional pride like our very own Gor Mahia. They have experienced some sort of golden age recently. Winning the Arab Champions League in 2009, making three straight appearances in the CAF Champions League final between 2010 and 2012; managing to win it in 2011.

They also won their league from 2009-2012 not to mention being only the 6th African club to win a treble (involving a continental title) in 2011. Last year was underwhelming for the blood and gold. Only managing to finish runners up in the league and experiencing semi final exits in the Champions league and Tunisian cup.

Maher Kanzari’s one year reign as coach ending as a result. After two interim coaches they have now settled well under former Dutch star Ruud Krol who has had successful stints at Orlando Pirates and CS Sfaxien.

The Tunis giants are arguably the most complete side in Africa. A well-stocked and balanced side being the recipe for their recent success. Despite four coaches in these five glorious years their playing style has remained largely the same (showing the importance of a football director but that is an article for another day).

With a 4-2-3-1 system they play a high defence line with the team collectively pressing to win the ball in sensitive areas and spreading it wide. The wingers play the ball infield to the lone striker and attacking midfielder(s) to score. They are also brilliant at set pieces with height and players capable of good delivery in plenty.

Their stats are terrifying. Since 2010, they have played 18 matches in the pre-group stage rounds with a record of 12 wins, 5 draws and only one defeat. Actually they have lost only 7 of 56 CAF Champions league matches since 2010. Stats that their peers TP Mazembe and Al Ahly play second fiddle to.

What are the personnel behind this machine? At the goal posts they boast the best Africa-based goalkeeper- Moez Ben Cherifia. Despite being only 22 years old he has played two Champions League finals, made over 100 caps for Esperance and is first choice for Tunisia’s national team. In central defence they possess aerial and physical prowess from Ben Mansour and Chamsedine Dhaouadi.

New signings Arbi Jabeur and Aminou Bouba have enjoyed some playing time recently but will likely sit this one out in favour of the duo who were part of the campaign last year. In the fullback positions they have captain Khalil Chammam on the left side. He is unspectacular going forward but very dependable in defensive work and takes set pieces.

On the right, Sami Derbali will be a threat with his surges forward and crosses. He will be challenged for a starting role by Iheb Mbarki as he is just from a lengthy suspension.

In the pivot position, also referred to as the good cop bad cop combination will be Hocine Ragued and Khaled Mouelhi. The former being the team’s piano carrier i.e., the person that will be frustrating Gor Mahia’s attackers. Mouelhi will be charged with playmaking responsibilities. Like his partner, he is experienced having clocked 30 years and tasted European football.

The trio behind the lone striker are always the danger factor in this system and it will not be any different this weekend. The good news for Gor Mahia is that the wingers present at the height of their powers have since left. Youssef Msakni making an Arab transfer record move of 11 million Euros to Qatari side Lekhwiya and Wadji Bouazzi being forced out by injuries.

The familiar face will be Darragi but his reputation has declined since a disappointing stint at FC Sion which saw him move back to ‘taraji’ akin to Blackberry Odhiambo at Gor Mahia. The wingers this time will be Ghanaian international Harrison Afful who was formerly a right back and plays right back for Ghana. On the left will be pacy striker Ahmed Akaichi and the two will interchange throughout the game.

The lone striker will undoubtedly be Cameroonian Yannick N’djeng. The burly striker has great ability to hold up play and will be an important physical presence for the Tunisian outfit in attack.

The Tunisians will come into this fixture having won 3 straight matches since their draw to Etoile Sahel. They lead the league with only one defeat in 20 matches and are unbeaten in 2014.

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