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African Football League Preview: Espérance ST

The inaugural edition of the African Football League (AFL) is off and running with eight of the continent’s top clubs looking to add another trophy. Pan-Africa Football is previewing each participant at the competition and below is the latest entry on the giants of Tunisian football, Espérance ST, as they attempt to recover from a difficult 2022-23 season:

Background

Winners of six consecutive Tunisia Ligue 1 Professionnelle titles between 2016 and 2022, Espérance are by far the most successful club in Tunisian football with 32 Ligue 1 titles to go along with 16 Tunisia Cup trophies. In addition, Taraji also have been crowned champions of African club football four times including two consecutive titles in 2018 and 2019.

Last season ended in shock with rivals Étoile du Sahel capturing the league title and now the 2023-24 season is an attempt at redemption for the Blood and Gold. While the club are not at the level they are five years ago, the AFL presents an opportunity for Espérance to send a message that they are still among Africa’s elite and that last season was a mere exception rather than the beginning of a drought.

Schedule

Quarterfinals

1st Leg- @ TP Mazembe on October 22 in Dar es Salaam

2nd Leg- vs TP Mazembe on October 25 in Tunis

Notable Arrivals and Departures

Arrivals

FW Houssam Ghacha (DZA)- Transfer from Antalyaspor (TUR)

MF Rodrigues (BRA)- Transfer from Juventude (BRA)

MF Mohamed Wael Derbali (TUN)- Transfer from Olympique Béja (TUN)

DF Oussema Shili (TUN)- Transfer from Stade Tunisien (TUN)

MF Yan Sasse (BRA)- Transfer from Wellington Phoenix (NZL)

MF Youssouf Oumarou (NER)- Transfer from US Monastir (TUN)

MF Houssem Tka (TUN)- Transfer from US Monastir (TUN)

FW Oussema Bougherra (TUN)- Transfer from Olympique Béja (TUN)

FW Kebba Sowe (GMB)- Loan from AS Soliman (TUN)

MF Onuche Ogbelu (NGA)- Transfer from FOSLA Academy (NGA)

Departures

MF Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane (TUN)- Transfer to Ferencváros (HUN)

MF Fousseny Coulibaly (CIV)- Transfer to Asswehly (LBY)

MF Sabir Bougrine (MAR)- Transfer to Raja CA (MAR)

FW Hamdou Elhouni (LBY)- Transfer to Wydad AC (MAR)

FW Anayo Iwuala (NGA)- Transfer to Al-Arabi (KUW)

FW Rached Arfaoui (TUN)- Transfer to Club Africain (TUN)

DF Houssem Dagdoug (TUN)- Transfer to El Gaish (EGY)

DF Mohamed Ali Yaakoubi (TUN)- Transfer to AS Marsa (TUN)

FW Anice Badri (TUN)- Released

Interim Head Coach- Tarek Thabet

A former Tunisia national team defender whose only club was Espérance during his fourteen-year playing career, Thabet now has the opportunity to lead his former club to glory as a temporary head coach. The 52-year-old is nearly twenty years into his coaching career, a journey that led him to manage many clubs in his native Tunisia as well as Libya (including Al-Ahli Tripoli and Al-Ahli Benghazi) and Lebanon. Thabet assumes the role of interim coach in addition to his duties as Sporting Director of the club before a foreign coach will likely be hired following the AFL.

Thabet won on his debut as EST coach two weeks ago with a 2-0 result over US Monastir and it appears that his formation is similar to his two most recent predecessors, a 4-3-3. It will be a difficult job for Thabet at the AFL considering the numerous departures and arrivals as EST rebuilds following the disappointment of last season. However he has plenty of experience and it appears the players are confident with him in charge.

Goalkeeping

Veteran captain Moez Ben Cherifia (left) is always ready to step in but it appears that 19-year-old youth product Amanallah Memmiche (right) is the goalkeeper for now and the future with EST

The period of transition at EST is creating an interesting situation at the goalkeeper position. 19-year-old Amanallah Memmiche was given his opportunity over the summer in the Arab Club Champions Cup and impressed with clean sheets against Iraqi club Al-Shorta and fellow Tunisian club CS Sfaxien. Memmiche, who also played for Tunisia in the third place match against Nigeria at the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations during the summer, continues to feature in the league campaign for EST and the AFL will be another big stage in which to gain further experience.

Captain and Tunisia national team member Moez Ben Cherifia has featured in one league match this season and is an important veteran leader who can step in if needed despite his declining role with EST. Mohamed Sebki Debchi featured in the majority of matches last season but failed to secure the trust of supporters and the decision makers at the club.

Defense

Yassine Meriah (left) forms a bruising partnership with Algeria national team member Mohamed Amine Tougai (right) in the center of defense

The center of the EST defense features an excellent combination of experience and strength. Yassine Meriah continues to revive his career with EST and the Tunisia national team after a spell in the Middle East left him with a severe knee injury and is the leader on the pitch for the Blood and Gold with captain Ben Cherifia often relegated to the bench. Tougai is a 23-year-old towering defender who continues to develop into a valuable player for EST and is set to have a role at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations for the Algeria national team.

Mohamed Amine Ben Hamida is the left back for EST and is a consistent fullback who is eager to attack from the flanks. On the right, Raed Bouchniba and Mohamed Ben Ali continue to battle for the starting position with Bouchniba playing more minutes so far in the young season. Hani Amamou appears to be the primary alternative if either Meriah or Tougai cannot play and new acquisition Oussema Shili is the backup to Ben Hamida on the left.

Midfield

Brazilian playmaker Yan Sasse arrived this season after a spell playing for New Zealand club Wellington Phoenix in Australia’s A-League. Much is expected of Sasse in the central attacking midfield role.

The midfield looks completely different for EST this season when it comes to personnel. Star player Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane completed a transfer to Hungarian giants Ferencváros and his departure led to the arrival of Brazilian Yan Sasse. The 26-year-old is finding his stride in Tunisian football with one goal so far but will need to adjust quickly to thrive against Africa’s top clubs and his left foot will be important if EST want to make an impact in the AFL.

There will be two midfielders operating behind Sasse who will have more defensive duties. Ghailene Chaalali, a frequent midfield partner of Ben Romdhane last season, is injured and Ivorian player Fousseny Coulibaly departed after nearly ten years with the club. Their replacements are Houssem Tka and Niger national team player Youssouf Oumarou, both from US Monastir, and former Toulouse academy product Mohamed Wael Derbali who arrives from fellow Tunisian club Olympique Béja for a substantial fee. Tka and Derbali appear to be the favorites to start in the AFL but Oumarou is a well known veteran who is more than capable of playing at this level.

Forwards

Oussema Bougherra (left) arrived from Tunisia Cup champions Olympique Béja and Algerian Houssam Ghacha (right) from Turkish club Antalyaspor to reinforce the EST attack

There are still some questions to be answered regarding the EST attack, particularly at the striker position up top, but new signings Oussema Bougherra and Houssam Ghacha are already established on the flanks. Ghacha was a star in his native Algeria with ES Sétif before spending two seasons in Turkey and he certainly has the ability to be a top player with EST on either wing. Bougherra is doing well since arriving from fellow Tunisian club Olympique Béja with a goal and three assists so far this season.

A variety of options exists at the striker position. Mohammed Ali Ben Hammouda is the established player with nine goals in all competitions last season but has failed to score in three matches so far this campaign. Brazilian striker Rodrigues arrived from his native country for a fee around €250,000 and came off the bench to score on his debut against Monastir two weeks ago. Both players are large traditional target forwards and it appears that Rodriguies may get his chance in the eleven at the AFL.

Prognosis

Espérance is in the midst of a rebuilding process following the departures of key players and the failure to live up to expectations last season. A duel with quarterfinal opponents TP Mazembe could go either way and it is difficult to predict a deep run at the AFL due to the current situation at EST. With strong veteran leaders in the defense, however, this team would appear to be slight favorites against Mazembe with the semifinals being an appropriate objective.

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