Wednesday, December 8, 2010
ESPNsoccernet: December 15, 10:58 AM UK
Club World Cup descends on Abu Dhabi
Less than a week after Qatar hit the headlines by winning hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, football in the Middle East takes centre stage again as Abu Dhabi welcomes the globe's six continental champions - plus UAE representatives - for the 2010 Club World Cup.
The tournament's merit has been widely debated since the inception of the current format in 2005, and it has proven difficult for FIFA to establish it as a respected competition, mainly because of the gargantuan gulf in quality between the teams competing.
It's difficult to look beyond a meeting between UEFA Champions League winners Inter Milan and Copa Libertadores champions Internacional in the final, with a Europe v South America showpiece having been the order of the day in all five editions since 2005.
South America could boast the first three winners of the Club World Cup - including the competition's shortlived predecessor, the FIFA World Club Championship, in 2000 - but the trophy has found its home in Europe since then, with AC Milan, Manchester United and Barcelona triumphing in the past three years.
Here, ESPNsoccernet has the lowdown on the seven clubs contesting - in FIFA's opinion - the biggest club competition in world football.
Europe/UEFA: Inter Milan (Italy)
Who are they? The reigning European champions won all before them last season under Jose Mourinho, claiming a treble triumph of Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia titles - but with new boss Rafa Benitez at the helm they have endured an indifferent 2010-11 campaign so far, although he has won some silverware in the shape of the Supercoppa Italiana. Inter president Massimo Moratti, though, has hinted that an under-fire Benitez must bring home the Nerazurri's fifth trophy of 2010. Despite their poor form, Inter will go into the competition as favourites.
Captain? Javier Zanetti. Like a vintage Malbec from his native Buenos Aires, Inter's skipper has got better with age and played a vital role in last season's unprecedented trophy success, alongside fellow midfield anchor Esteban Cambiasso. Strong in the tackle and offering excellent distribution, Zanetti is a model of consistency and, as an Argentinian, would love to beat Brazilian side Internacional on the way to this title.
Player to watch? Wesley Sneijder. Inter's talisman and creator-in-chief has been an influential figure for both club and country in 2010 and another medal in Abu Dhabi would be just reward for a player who was surprisingly overlooked when the three-man FIFA World Player of the Year shortlist was released this week. His incisive passing and set-piece proficiency will again be crucial and he will be desperate to impress after struggling for form in recent weeks.
South America/CONMEBOL: Internacional
Who are they? The Brazilian side produced arguably the biggest performance in their history last time they competed in the Club World Cup in 2006 when they beat reigning European champions Barcelona 1-0 in the final. They booked a return to the competition by disposing of Chivas Guadalajara in the 2010 Copa Libertadores final.
A 5-3 aggregate victory was the culmination of a number of excellent performances in the knockout stages, including victories over reigning champions Estudiantes and Brazilian giants Sao Paulo. Celso Roth's side may have impressed in knockout football, but a seventh-place finish in the Brazilan Campeonato proves that there are plenty of weaknesses in the side.
Captain? Bolivar. The 30-year-old centre-back has been a defensive stalwart for Internacional since returning to the club in 2008 following a two-year spell with Ligue 1 side Monaco. Having already departed to France when Internacional triumphed at the Club World Cup in 2006, Bolivar will be relishing the opportunity to lead the side in Abu Dhabi.
Player to watch? Andres D'Alessandro. Billed as one of the most promising talents in world football when starring as a teenager for River Plate, D'Alessandro struggled to live up to the hype following a €9 million move to Bundesliga side Wolfsburg in 2007 and eventually returned to San Lorenzo in his native Argentina, via Portsmouth and Zaragoza, before moving to Internacional. Possessing an excellent first touch and majestic vision, D'Alessandro will be pulling his side's creative strings.
Prediction? Losing finalists.
Central and North America, Caribbean/CONCACAF: FC Pachuca (Mexico)
Who are they? Looking to avenge an embarrassing quarter-final exit at the hands of Tunisia's Etoile Sportive du Sahel in 2007 and losses to Ecuador's Liga Universitaria de Quito and Japan's Gamba Osaka in 2008, CONCACAF Champions League winners Pachuca will be hoping it will be third time lucky at this year's Club World Cup.
A dramatic third continental success in the past four years was secured courtesy of Edgar Benitez's 93rd-minute winner against fellow Mexican side Cruz Azul, but progress in Abu Dhabi will depend on seeing off African champs TP Mazembe in the quarter-finals before Internacional await in the semis.
Captain? Miguel Calero. The veteran goalkeeper has spent a decade between the sticks for Pachuca, winning nine trophies in that time, including all four of the club's CONCACAF Champions Leagues. The 39-year-old former Colombia international, who was a part of his country's 2001 Copa America triumph, is a charismatic but calming presence in goal and his Pachuca No. 1 shirt has a pair of wings on the back in relation to his nickname, El Condor.
Player to watch? Damian Manso. The star of LDU Quito's progress to the 2008 World Club Cup final against Manchester United, Argentinian midfield maestro Manso won the Bronze Ball for third best player two years ago, beaten only by United superstars Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. A journeyman who has taken in clubs in Greece, France and Argentina, his experience and ability to create openings will be a valuable weapon for Pachuca.
Asia/AFC: Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (South Korea)
Who are they? Seven-time domestic champions Seongnam added a second continental title to their silverware collection when defeating surprise Iranian finalists Zob Ahan 3-1 to win the AFC Champions league in Tokyo last month. It was their first triumph in the competition since 1996. Their path to the final saw them beat opposition from all corners of Asia, with clubs from Saudi Arabia, China, Singapore and Japan all dispatched, along with fellow South Korean side Suwon Bluewings.
With former South Korea attacking midfielder Shin Tae-Yong managing the side, Seongnam earned a reputation for playing free-flowing attacking football in last season's AFC Champions League and will attempt to become the first Asian side to reach the Club World Cup football by sticking with the same principals.
Captain? Sasa Ognenovski. A towering centre-back, 6ft 5in Australian defender Ognevoski was somewhat of a journeyman in his homeland before a move to Seongnam in 2009, which came off the back of commanding displays for Queensland Roar and Adelaide United in the A-League. Since arriving in South Korea, he has provided Seongnam with a dominant presence at the back, especially in the air.
Player to watch? Mauricio Molina. The Colombian playmaker, who has made 13 appearances for his country, was the second-top scorer in the 2010 AFC Champions League, with seven goals, but he is more than just a goalscorer - his intelligent approach has also seen the former Santos and Red Star Belgrade man provide a number of valuable assists.
TP Mazembe (DR Congo; Africa/CAF)
Who are they? First known as TP Englebert, they were founded by Benedictine monks in 1939 and went on to become one of the leading lights of the continent. Making their second successive appearance at the Club World Cup, Les Corbeaux (The Crows) have a rich history, mostly in the 1960s, when they became the first team to retain the African Cup of Champions in '67 and '68.
Current TP Mazembe manager Lamine N'Diaye has continued the good work of his predecessor and a crushing 6-1 victory over Tunisian side Esperance ST in October saw the club retain the CAF Champions League, making them the third most successful team in the competition's history. In Abu Dhabi, they will be aiming to go a step better than last year, when they lost 2-1 to Pohang Steelers in the quarter-finals despite having been a goal up.
Captain? Mabi Mputu. TP Mazembe will have to compete in Abu Dhabi without one of Congo's best players as their influential captain is serving a one-year worldwide ban after assaulting match officials during a regional club championship in Rwanda. He scored seven goals in the club's 2009 Champions League triumph and his absence will be felt.
Player to watch? Dioko Kaluyituka. The midfielder finished as top scorer in the 2009 Champions League with eight goals, including a hat-trick in the 5-0 thrashing of Zimbabwe's Monomotapa. His goal-scoring will be important if the African side are to progress.
Oceania/OFC: Hekari United (Papua New Guinea)
Who are they? Australia and New Zealand have had a monopoly over Oceania's Club World Cup spot since the tournament began, but Hekari bucked that trend when they shocked Kiwi side Waitakere United to win last season's OFC Champions League 4-2 on aggregate. More than 15,000 fans turned up to watch the Papua New Guineans in the first leg of the final, which Jerry Allen's side won 3-0. For the minnows, just being a part of the same tournament as the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Samuel Eto'o will be the stuff of dreams.
Captain? David Muta. Widely regarded as one of the best players in Oceania, Muta is Hekari's midfield lynchpin and has previously been described by his coach as "an important influence on and off the field". The 23-year-old is full of energy and can also boast valuable experience of playing with and against top players having been selected in the Oceania all-star side that faced David Beckham's LA Galaxy in 2008, with Edgar Davids joining Muta and co as a special guest.
Player to watch? Kema Jack. The striker was Hekari's top marksman in their triumphant OFC Champions League campaign and was the competition's joint-highest scorer with seven goals to his name. Three goals across the two legs of the final also show he has the bottle for the big games. On Hekari's achievement in reaching the Club World Cup, he said: "In some of our villages, we don't have the internet or newspapers or television. They know the big clubs from around the world, but some villagers from Koparoko where I am from think I am making up a story that we have qualified."
Asia/AFC: Al-Wahda (UAE)
Who are they? As hosts, Abu Dhabi will provide the competition's final team in the form of their domestic champions, Al-Wahda, who won their fourth UAE League title this year, five years after their last triumph.
Having only reached the group stage of the 2010 AFC Champions League, Al-Wahda are the tournament's underdogs but will hope that their fanatical home support - even though they will be playing at the stadium of rivals Al-Jazira - can help them go at least a step further than last year's UAE representatives, Al-Ahli, who were knocked out in the first round.
Captain? Haider Alo Ali. This 30-year-old can operate in midfield or defence, and has urged his side to learn from Al-Ahli's mistakes: "We have to take positives and negatives from their display. We have worked hard and we are ready. We will do our best to perform in a positive way."
Player to watch? Hamdan Al Kamali. One of the UAE's most promising defenders has chalked up a mammoth 52 games for the Under-20 team, with many coming as captain. A pacy centre-back and natural leader, he was linked with a move to Portsmouth in 2009.
Prediction? Play-off losers.