Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Internacional club football
Inter vs Inter. It's a fixture casual football fans might only expect to see thrown up at the whim of a computer game player, but in the United Arab Emirates on December 18, it's widely expected to be the final of the Club World Cup.
Until now in the competition's short history, the final has always been between the South American and European participants and, if that doesn't change, the two namesakes - Internazionale of Italy and Brazil's Sport Club Internacional de Porto Alegre - will be the ones facing off in the showpiece match.
For Internacional, of course, it's a fitting end to an eventful year for the club, with the Campeonato Brasileirao having ended on a high last week after a severe slump in the aftermath of their Copa Libertadores win a few months ago. Don't be deceived by their league form: they'll be strongly competitive in Abu Dhabi, having kept the vast bulk of the players who so impressed in that final and with plans to bring yet more young stars through to back up the more experienced figures in the team.
Apart from Taison, who joined Ukraine's Metalist Kharkiv, and Sandro, who went to Tottenham Hotspur, Internacional still have all their key players. Tricky Argentine playmaker - with apologises for that cliche - Andres D'Alessandro will be familiar to Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga viewers and will be the key creative axis, while his countryman Pablo Guinazu is not merely superb at holding the fort deep in midfield but superb enough at it to have captained the side plenty of times, although centre back Bolivar will probably take the armband for the tournament.
One player to whom the surroundings in Abu Dhabi won't be alien is Rafael Sobis. The forward featured in Internacional's first Copa Libertadores win in 2006 before moving to Real Betis, where his previously impressive form - including 40 goals in 133 matches for Inter - fell away, and he was able to manage only eight in 57 games. He left Spain in 2008 for Al-Jazira, and spent two years playing in the United Arab Emirates, where this year's Club World Cup will be played.
Although he didn't play as much as might have been expected in Abu Dhabi, his goal-scoring ratio of a little under one in three returned, and in July this year he rejoined Internacional on a one-year loan deal. He was just in time to score the side's first goal in their 3-2 second leg win over Mexican side Chivas in the Copa Libertadores final, although his form in the league since has, like that of the rest of the team, been affected by the club's clear prioritisation of their Club World Cup campaign over the end of the Brazilian season.
Inter have ended the Campeonato Brasileirao with two straight wins but prior to that went through a dip in form brought on by the distractions of preparing for their trip to the Gulf. They've finished the season in seventh, 13 points behind winners Fluminense (incidentally also driven on by an Argentine playmaker, 27-year-old Dario Conca, who might be in line for a national team call-up). It's hardly an embarrassment given the highly competitive nature of the Brazilian championship, but at one point they went seven matches without a win, during which spell they drew four in a row.
They eventually won when fielding a virtual reserve side away to Botafogo featuring the aforementioned Rafael Sobis, working his way towards fitness. Given the way their season fell away, it's perhaps fitting that the victory allowed their local rivals Gremio to leapfrog Botafogo in the table on their way to eventually claiming a qualification spot for the 2011 Copa Libertadores.
Two of the players who featured in that 2-1 victory are two who are much heralded by Internacional fans as the potential next two stars: attacking midfielder Oscar, who'll wear the number 18 shirt in Abu Dhabi, and forward Leandro Damiao, who'll take the number 19. Against Botafogo, Oscar set up Rafael Sobis for the side's second goal with a great run and cross, and he impressed so much throughout that he was also used - albeit as a substitute for Sobis - in the team's final game of the season, a 3-0 away win over Gremio Prudente (not to be confused with Inter's local rivals).
Use of the youngsters late on in the campaign is of course a way of making sure the first team don't pick up any little injuries ahead of the main tournament, and it's a reminder of how seriously the Club World Cup is taken in South America - far more so than in (certainly northern) Europe. "We have been preparing for the end of the season," manager Celso Roth said ahead of the Botafogo game when asked about his use of the second-string side. "We're only doing what has been planned."
European champions Internazionale, of course, have no such excuse to make for their own dramatic dip in form, and given the two sides' very different reasons for falling off the pace, the question has to at least be asked whether perhaps Brazilian Inter ought to be installed as favourites for this trophy. Italian Inter's own sizeable South American contingent will surely be making sure the club don't take the assignment too lightly. All the same, the Brazilians will be made more hopeful of a repeat of the 2006 win over Barcelona, given their opponents' recent travails.
There are semi-finals for both sides to negotiate first of all, of course, and so nothing should yet be taken for granted, especially given the strength of Internacional's likely semi-final opponents, the Mexican side Pachuca, who ought to get past the magnificently-monikered TP Mazembe Englebert in the first round.
It would be a little bit of history were either South America or Europe to fail to reach the final, though and, if they both do make it, Inter vs Inter could prove a very tasty showpiece indeed.