Kick-Off: Wednesday, December 16, 2009. 20:00 local time.
Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi
First it was Spain, then it was Europe, and now Barcelona are attempting to complete a historic 2009 by becoming officially the best club side in the world, a title already bestowed on them by a throng of football fans and pundits but one they have never actually won.
When the Blaugrana defeated Manchester United 2-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in May – claiming the Champions League title and completing the third leg of their historic treble – they essentially dethroned the previous world champions, vanquishing the only other side in Europe who were deemed to boast consistency and quality on a level akin to theirs. Now Pep Guardiola’s men have the opportunity to make their unofficial title bona fide.
The summer may have brought with it a brief truce in hostilities, but it did not prevent Barca’s momentum carrying them to further silverware. Already boasting the Primera Division and Copa del Rey titles, the men from Camp Nou promptly hoovered up the Supercopa de Espana and the UEFA Super Cup.
There is but one spot left on Barca’s mantelpiece, and it neatly fits the Club World Cup. The Catalan giants now stand on the very cusp of holding all six trophies at once, surely an achievement that will be not be replicated for decades to come.
Atlante provide their first opposition in Abu Dhabi, while a final against either Pohang Steelers or Estudiantes will follow on Sunday should Europe’s finest emerge unscathed against the Mexicans.
Jose Guadalupe Cruz’s Atlante side qualified for the Club World Cup by virtue of their success in the CONCACAF Champions League, beating Cruz Azul 2-0 over two legs to be named the best side on the North American continent.
Whereas Barcelona have successfully built upon their continental success, Atlante have faded somewhat, finishing a rather disappointing ninth in 2009’s Apertura, possessing a record that saw them lose more games than they won.
However, the Mexicans have had a little more time to adapt to the Abu Dhabi climate than their opponents, already having had one game at the 2009 Club World Cup. Auckland City, who shocked Al-Ahly in the first round, were comfortably dispatched 3-0, with the goals coming from Daniel Arreola, Christian Bermudez and Luis Bermudez.
Dominant in their previous encounter, Atlante have also enjoyed some success against Spanish opposition over the course of the last few months. The summer’s Peace Cup saw them paired against Malaga, who proved a test for the Mexicans. After being threatened by the La Liga side at 1-1, Los Potros de Hierro scored twice in the final quarter of the game to ease to victory.
WON 1-0 (h) Espanyol (La Liga, December 12)
WON 2-1 (a) Dynamo Kiev (Champions League, December 9)
WON 3-1 (a) Deportivo La Coruna (La Liga, December 5)
WON 1-0 (a) Xerez (La Liga, December 2)
WON 1-0 (h) Real Madrid (La Liga, November 29)
WON 3-0 (n) Auckland City (Club World Cup, December 12)
DREW 0-0 (h) UAG (Primera Division, November 14)
LOST 4-0 (a) UANL (Primera Division, November 7)
WON 3-2 (h) Toluca (Primera Division, November 4)
LOST 3-1 (a) Cruz Azul (Primera Division, October 31)
Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi remains Barcelona’s key injury problem. The Argentine offensive wizard has not yet returned to training after sustaining an ankle issue. He has not yet been ruled out, but the prospects of him playing seem bleak.
With a long trip and an intense schedule, Guardiola may attempt to shuffle his squad a little.
Probable Starting XI: Valdes; Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Ibrahimovic, Henry
Atlante have registered no injury issues ahead of Wednesday’s game and will likely stick close to the XI that eased past Auckland.
Christian Bermudez had a thigh problem last week, but that did not stop him from playing against the New Zealanders.
Probable Starting XI: Vilar; Martinez, Guerrero, Velazquez; Gonzalez, Arreola; Navarro, Rojas, Solari; Bermudez, Marquez
PLAYERS TO WATCH
With Lionel Messi unlikely to feature, Guardiola will look for increased attacking impetus to come from Andres Iniesta. Previously a man under-rated by many, the 25-year-old has risen to prominence over the course of the last 18-months, hitting something of a peak with his recent fourth place in the Ballon d’Or voting. Rafael Marquez, should he feature, will be keen to impress against his countrymen.
One man in the Mexicans’ XI who will be desperate to make an impression against the Blaugrana is former Real Madrid man Santiago Solari, who plied his trade at the Santiago Bernabeu from 2000 to 2005. Utilised as an attacking midfielder or a winger, the 33-year-old will doubtless be keen to renew acquaintances with an old rival.
Though Atlante’s success has been based around a solid defensive unit, there are very few teams who can successfully repel the waves of Blaugrana attacks for a complete game. With Guardiola’s men likely to play at a tempo higher than their opponents are used to, Barca should have few problems sealing success in this encounter.
Barcelona 2-0 Atlante
Robin Bairner, Goal.com
Who is the Very Best? Just the coolest world music group right now. They talk about their love of football--Henrik Larsson!--in the DEC/JAN issue of Goal.com Magazine.