Raja Casablanca - by Firdose Moonda
For the first time in the Club World Cup’s 10-year history, an African country will host the tournament and Raja Casablanca are the biggest beneficiaries of that decision. The Moroccan league champions are in the tournament as hosts, a fitting choice considering they were the team from the continent that first played in this event.
Casablanca were the African representatives at the inaugural Club World Cup in 2000. They finished bottom of their group, losing to Corinthians, Real Madrid and Saudi side Al-Nassr, but won many hearts. After putting two past the Spanish giants, they were lauded for their free-flowing, attractive style of play. That appearance capped off a golden period for the club, who won two of their three CAF Champions League titles in that time as well. They were continental champions in 1997 and 1999. The glory days have not been as plentiful recently. Despite winning the league last season, they are currently in eighth position and have won just four of their 11 matches.
Two weeks before the Club World Cup, they fired coach Mohamad Fakir and have since announced the signing of Tunisian Faouzi Benzarti. If he can take the team to the quarterfinals, he will be considered a success already. In the opening game on Wednesday, they have to get past Auckland City. The New Zealand side have only made it to the quarterfinals once before, in 2009, and Casablanca will fancy their chances against them to set up a date with Mexican side Monterrey. Anything further than that will be a bonus. The likes of Tunisian midfielder Adel Chedli, who was in Manchester United’s academy as a youngster, and Hamza Abourazzouk, the striker who scored for the national team against Ivory Coast in World Cup qualifying, will be the players to keep an eye on.
Auckland City - by Rob Brooks
Undoubtedly the underdogs once again, Oceania’s representative Auckland City will compete in their fifth FIFA Club World Cup when the tournament kicks off in Morocco. Having qualified courtesy of an OFC Champions League victory in the final against New Zealand rivals Waitakere United in May, the club from the nation’s most populous city will play in the competition opener against Casablanca. However, the team that will compete at the Stade Adrar will do so without star midfielder Albert Riera -- not the former Liverpool winger of the same name -- who was poached by A-League club Wellington Phoenix following an impressive display in a preseason friendly earlier this year.
The 37-year-old Ivan Vicelich -- New Zealand’s most-capped international, and an assistant coach with the club -- will instead be the focal point for City, with the defender’s experience in the Eredivisie critical to any hopes of staging an upset. In attack, Roy Krishna has recently made the switch from Waitakere to City, boosting the club’s strike power heading into the contest, while Argentinian Emiliano Tade should provide the perfect foil for the Fijian forward. Though relative veterans of Club World Cups, the Navy Blues have managed only two wins from seven matches in their previous four appearances, so victory over their Moroccan opponents would constitute a successful campaign.
The club’s best finish came in 2009, when they placed fifth following triumphs over TP Mazembe and Al Ahli, a result they would happily take again. City’s Spanish coach Ramon Tribulietx set up a friendly with Espanyol en route to the tournament last week, an experience which should at least have the players physically prepared for what lies ahead.
Guangzhou Evergrande - by John Duerden
Never have there been such expectation surrounding the Asian representative at the FIFA Club World Cup, but Guangzhou Evergrande are a little different. Not even Pep Guardiola, coach of European heavyweights Bayern Munich, has a résumé to match the one possessed by his counterpart in charge of the Chinese powerhouse.
Marcello Lippi added the Asian Champions League to that CV -- which also includes the European edition as well as the World Cup -- in November with an away goals win over FC Seoul in the final. While that two-legged affair was a close run thing, the route to get there was anything but. Guangzhou, winner of a third successive Chinese Super League crown in October, romped their way through the continental competition. The club’s foreign players did much of the damage and collected almost all the headlines. Serious investment, $70 million plus and rising, brought the likes of Dario Conca, Argentine playmaker extraordinaire from Fluminese and two Brazilian hotshots in the shape of Muriqui and Elkeson. Add that to highly rated South Korean defender Kim Young-gwon and much of the Chinese national team -- the squad named recently to face Indonesia and Saudi Arabia contained nine Guangzhou players -- then it is easier to understand how, after winning their group, the Reds scored 19 goals and conceded just three in six knockout-stage games to eliminate Australian, Qatari and Japanese opposition.
Zheng Zhi recently picked up the 2013 Asian Player of the Year award, with right-back Zhang Linpeng also winning plenty of plaudits. Conca is the team’s standout, however, and after two and a half excellent years, he is heading back to South America. The Club World Cup marks his final appearance in the red shirt. Can he drive Guangzhou to the promised land of the Club World Cup for Asian teams -- the final? There have been a few third-placed finishes in the past, and while that would be satisfactory for the Chinese champions, it is a place in the final that really would get the whole country talking once again.
Al-Ahly - by Firdose Moonda
Al-Ahly will extend their record of being the team to make the most appearances at the Club World Cup, along with Auckland, when they play in their fifth event this year. It is also likely to be their most important because it will be the farewell event for veteran player Mohamed Aboutrika, who will retire once the team’s run in the tournament is up. That is reason enough for the Egyptian giants -- who won a second consecutive continental title in the absence of domestic league success -- to demand of themselves their best showing yet.
Despite their number of appearances, Al-Ahly have never made the final of the competition, with their finest finish a bronze medal in 2006, after losing in the final four to Internacional. Last year was the only other occasion in which they made the semifinals and they were beaten by Corinthians. With Brazilian clubs twice blocking their passage to the top two, Al-Ahly may be relieved that if they beat Guangzhou (and they will be expected to, even though the team is coached by Lippi) they will avoid Atletico Mineiro. The bad news is that they will run straight into Bayern Munich.
Even with the prospect of facing the European champions, evergreen optimism accompanied their build-up to the tournament. Knowing they have triumphed above adversities far greater than any experienced on a football field is what buoys them, and having the likes of experienced defender and captain Wael Gomaa and Emad Moteab in the squad only adds to their confidence. Al-Ahly are also hopeful that because the championship is being played in North Africa, they will be able to command the support of locals, and some of their own fans may make the trip too.
Monterrey - by Tom Marshall
Monterrey won the CONCACAF Champions League for the third successive season last May -- overcoming Santos Laguna in the final -- and come into the Club World Cup with high hopes of bettering their third position last time out in the competition in Japan. The major difference this time around is that veteran manager Victor Manuel Vucetich is out -- fired in August -- and young, respected coach Jose "Profe" Cruz is now in charge of steering Los Rayados to their stated goal of a final appearance. But the build-up to the tournament hasn’t gone well for Monterrey, with Cruz turning up to one news conference last month with a black eye and being forced to explain to the media that he’d been involved in a fight with his now-former assistant.
On the field, the team from northern Mexico never really got going in the past Apertura tournament, finishing in 11th position in the 18-team league, as Cruz struggled to mould the players into his system. Los Rayados fell 2-0 in the final warm-up game against Paraguay’s Nacional last Saturday, which was hardly the ideal sendoff. Nevertheless, player for player, Monterrey still have one of the best squads in Mexico and have had one eye on Morocco for the second half of 2013.
Captain Jose Maria Basanta is a rock at centre-back and has an outside chance of starting for Argentina at next year’s World Cup, while in goal, Jonathan Orozco is capable of the spectacular, is keen on a move to Europe and catches the eye with his Spiderman tattoos. Efrain Juarez may also be remembered by Celtic and Real Zaragoza fans after his brief stint in Europe. But the real key for Monterrey is 32-year-old Chilean Humberto Suazo, who still oozes talent and remains one of the most cunning forwards in the Liga MX. You’d expect Los Rayados to get through to the semifinals, but if the CONCACAF side are to overcome Brazil’s Atletico Mineiro and reach the final, Suazo will have to be firing on all cylinders.
Bayern Munich - by Stephan Uersfeld
Bayern Munich stormed through the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League, beating Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate on their way to Wembley, where they conquered the demons and recorded a 2-1 win against the new kids on the block, Borussia Dortmund, in the final to take home the prize. Before the defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday, they had recorded 10 consecutive wins in Europe -- just one of numerous records the Bavarian giants have erased in 2013 -- and Pep Guardiola's side still look set to become the first team to defend the Champions League title in the competition’s history.
When they enter automatically at the semifinal stage in on Dec. 17, Bayern will play at the Club World Cup for the first time -- though they twice, in 1976 and 2001, beat their South American rivals in the old competition, the Intercontinental club, staged between the European and the South American champions. Anything other than winning the fifth title in 2013 -- after the Bundesliga, the German Cup, the Champions League and the UEFA Supercup -- would come as a surprise and a major blow to the German giants. Currently, they are viewed as the best club in the world, and they certainly want to prove it.
Bayern’s star-studded team -- which includes UEFA Player of the Year Franck Ribery, who has also made the Ballon d’Or shortlist -- will be able to field most of their first-choice XI with only Germany Player of the Year Bastian Schweinsteiger and Netherlands international Arjen Robben not able to make their trip because of recent injuries. In their Club World Cup debut, Ribery will want to prove that he, and he only, should be the deserved winner of the sought-after Ballon d’Or accolade. With his teammate David Alaba in fine form, Bayern’s left side might be the most prominent part of a Bayern team that has very few weak spots. The Alaba/Ribery partnership has long looked like becoming one of the best partnerships in the world, but also watch out for the brilliant Thomas Mueller, who scores goals with every part of his body.
Atletico Mineiro - by Fernando Duarte
Cruzeiro’s taking of the 2013 Campeonato Brasileiro by storm indeed stole Atletico Mineiro’s thunder in the eternal bragging battle involving the two clubs from Belo Horizonte, the fifth-richest city in Brazil. The Club World Cup, however, offers Atletico a precious chance for a last laugh: while their maiden Copa Libertadores title last May is still trumped by Cruzeiro’s double continental crowns (1976 and 1997), the black and white side of Belo Horizonte could celebrate a title in Morocco that twice eluded the blue half.
It is really a shame that the tournament didn't take place six months ago. Back then, mercurial winger Bernard was still on Atletico’s books, but it's the momentum “Galo” fans wish they could recover with time travel. Especially with Ronaldinho. While the return of the former double world player of the year after a two-month layoff due to thigh injury is a reason to cheer, it remains a mystery to see if “Dinho’’ will be firing on all cylinders.
Striker Jo has so far not emulated his prolific early form. Worse, Atletico still seem to be focusing a bit too much on a possible meeting with Bayern Munich in the final, while there’s still a semifinal on Dec. 18 to negotiate first. Their eighth-place finish in the Brasileiro shouldn’t be a straight measure of their form, since Atletico blatantly took their foot off the pedal after the Libertadores win. But they will be banking on the efforts of striker Diego Tardelli, and goalkeeper Victor’s ice-cold blood for penalty saves. Most of all, fans will be expecting glimpses of brilliance from Ronaldinho. They were certainly quite helpful for Atletico’s conquest of America and the team could certainly do with some more in case they do lock swords with Guardiola’s boys come a final on Dec. 21.