Benzarti plots African final downfall of club he led to glory
Leading Esperance to the 1994 African Cup of Champions Clubs title was the first of five CAF club titles won by the 69-year-old, a record for an Africa-born coach. Now he hopes to turn the tables on one of his many former teams, who defeated Wydad 1-0 in the Champions League final eight years ago and won the competition again last year.
Apart from the pride of winning the elite African club competition a second time, Benzarti has been promised a $20,000 (18,000 euro) bonus should Wydad succeed. In the other dugout at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in Rabat will be Moine Chaabani, a 37-year-old who was not born when Benzarti began coaching.
Chaabani was rushed into the hot seat after a 2018 semi-final first leg loss and oversaw a dramatic recovery, and another stirring comeback to beat Al Ahly of Egypt in the final. Both coaches kept low profiles this week as they prepared to do battle for a $2.5 million first prize, with the runners-up receiving half that amount.
Benzarti hopes attackers Mohamed Ounajem and Amin Tighazoui will have recovered from injuries and be available for selection. Mohamed Nahiri, a left-back but the leading Wydad scorer in the CAF campaign with five goals, is likely to return after missing the last match through suspension.
- Khenissi fitness test -
Another attacker, Taha Yassine Khenissi, is the main concern for Chaabani and faces a late fitness test ahead of the first encounter. None of the Wydad team that lost the 2011 final remain, but Esperance goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia and captain and centre-back Khalil Chemmam are survivors.
Esperance are unbeaten after 10 CAF matches this season and hope to become the first club to go through two Champions League-winning campaigns without losing a match. The Tunis-based 'Blood and Gold' were unbeaten in 1994 and Oryx Douala (1965), Ismailia (1969), Algerian outfit JET (1981) and Ahly (2005) also achieved the feat.
Should Esperance become champions again -- the second leg is in Tunisia on May 31 -- they will be the fourth club to achieve back-to-back victories. TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ahly have done so twice and Enyimba of Nigeria once in the 54 years of the competition.
While Wydad have lost three of 12 matches en route to the final, they impressed at their temporary home in Rabat, winning five matches, drawing one and scoring 15 goals. Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca is being renovated so Wydad have staged most of their CAF fixtures in Rabat, 86 kilometres (53 miles) north of the Moroccan commercial capital.
The match kicks off at 2300 local time (2200 GMT) to allow the players to eat and drink after the sunrise-to-sunset fast during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan.