Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Conquering the world
It has been a busy few months for Barcelona, the European champions, making sure of their place in the knockout stage of the Champions League and taking the field in all their domestic games knowing that every point they drop makes it harder for them to retain their Spanish title. Then, of course, Pep Guardiola's side won their most important match of the season so far, beating Real Madrid 3-1 in the Clasico.
For the Catalan giants flying off to Japan, the World Club Cup is an afterthought. For Santos, meanwhile, it is in every thought. Ever since Pele's old club won the Copa Libertadores in June, they have been fixated by the idea of having a crack at Lionel Messi and company. Santos sailed through the Brazilian Championship with their minds elsewhere, occasionally waking up to find themselves flirting with the relegation zone, putting on a quick spurt and then going to sleep once more. They finished tenth, their bodies in Brazil but their minds dreaming of December in Japan.
First, of course, they must negotiate a semi-final - and if they really want to take on Barcelona, hope that Messi and co safely get through theirs. Last year serves as a dreadful warning. International of Porto Alegre, 2010 Libertadores winners, lost their semi to African champions TP Mazembe and missed out on their big day. Internazionale of Italy cruised to the title and showed how little it meant to them by calmly dismissing their coach.
This gulf in perceptions towards the Club World Cup is not hard to explain. The world is already present in the Champions League - the best players from the four corners of the globe congregated in the top European teams. This has led to a huge imbalance of forces in the Club World Cup. True, there have been South American success stories. Sao Paulo beat Liverpool in 2005, and fellow Brazilians Internacional overcame Barcelona the following year. But both times the winners took the field with a strategy that clearly acknowledged the superiority of their rivals. They fought from a trench, hung on for dear life and broke out once to score with a counter-attack. It did not produce a spectacle to hold the attention of the neutral.
This year could be different. There has been a tilt in the balance of economic forces, Europe rocking while Brazil has thrived. And that is now reflected on the pitch, especially on the South American side of the Atlantic.
A few years ago, there would be no question about it. An outstanding figure like Neymar would already be playing his football in Europe, maybe even with Barcelona. But in the new scenario Santos have been able to hold on to their star attraction, the most dazzling talent to be produced by Brazilian football in years.
The rest of the world gets carried away by the Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate. But from a Brazilian perspective, the duel of the best two players in the world did not take place at the weekend - it will have to wait for the next, when, providing their teams get through their semi finals, Messi will be on the same pitch as Neymar.
There are some in Brazil who argue that Neymar is already better. This is surely premature, but Santos coach Muricy Ramalho is of the view that his player has the potential to outstrip the Barcelona No. 10. "Before long he'll be the best in the world," Ramalho says of Neymar. "The two are similar but Neymar is a bit more special. His style alternates the direction of the ball as he carries it, while Messi dribbles more in a straight line. Neymar is unpredictable. You don't find anyone in the world who does what he can with the ball."
What will he be able to do with it against Barcelona? If he cuts his way through the high defensive line of his opponents he will be able to do some serious damage. It will indeed be fascinating to see how he copes with the test. Will Barcelona's high intensity pressing deny him the space to unleash his dribbles? And how will he react if he does not get the soft fouls he is generally awarded in Brazil? Will he be able to control a tendency to petulance? All intriguing questions - some of which also surround his team-mate, playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso. Hailed as a phenomenon 18 months ago, Ganso has not made the progress expected of him - largely due to long lay-offs with injury. The Barcelona game is an ideal stage for him to announce his arrival. If all goes to plan for Santos, Ganso will make the bullets for Neymar to fire.
In addition to the talent of his wonderkids, Ramalho will certainly be looking to another weapon to get the best of Barcelona. His teams have not always been aesthetically pleasing, but they have invariably been efficient. Between 2006 and 2008 he won three Brazilian titles in a row with Sao Paulo, with a gameplan based on tight defence and corners and free-kicks thrown high into the opponent's box for a phalanx of giants to attack. There must be moments when he catches himself looking at the lack of height in the Barcelona side and licking his lips in anticipation. This is why the return from injury of Elano could be so important - he is the club's most effective striker of set pieces.
Muricy Ramalho will not care too much how the victory is won but, whatever happens, it would be nice if the teams can provide the kind of spectacle capable of grabbing global attention and cementing the place of the Club World Cup in the game's calendar.