Abu Dhabi: The world’s six continental champions play-off with the UAE league winning hosts Al Ain in the Fifa Club World Cup in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi from December 12-22.
Al Ain kick-off against Oceanian champions Wellington of New Zealand in the play-off from 7.30pm on Wednesday at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium for the chance to make it through to the quarters against African champions Tunisia’s ES Tunis on Saturday.
Saturday’s other quarter-final will see Asian champions Kashima Antlers of Japan take on Mexican North and Central American champions Guadalajara.
All will battle it out for the chance of meeting either Spanish European champions Real Madrid or Argentinian South American winners River Plate in the final four.
Real, as favourites, and the winners of the past two editions, will have the most to lose.
Real Madrid (Spain)
Qualify as: European champions
Previous appearances: 2000, 2014, 2016, 2017
Best finish: 3-time winners 2014, 2016, 2017
Coach: Santiago Solari
One to watch: Luka Modric
Los Blancos equalled Barcelona’s record of three Fifa Club World Cup wins by beating Brazil’s Gremio 1-0 in Abu Dhabi last year. Now they return to take the record with a fourth win and to become the first side to win three Club World Cups in a row. A lot has changed in 12 months however, not only is their star striker Cristiano Ronaldo out of the picture having joined Juventus over the summer, but they are also already on their second coach since Zinedine Zidane also left over the summer, with Solari replacing Julen Lopetegui in October after Real suffered their worst start to a season in 17 years.
Luka Modric — who won player of the tournament at this event last year — remains, and he has followed it up with this year’s Ballon d’Or, but even so, there’s something distinctly beatable about this side after so much chop and change.
River Plate (Argentina)
Qualify as: South American champions
Previous appearances: 2015
Best finish: runners-up 2015
Coach: Marcelo Gallardo
One to watch: Exequiel Palacios
After the drama that saw them get this far, River Plate could be forgiven for petering out with mental exhaustion in Abu Dhabi. Only on Sunday did they beat their bitter Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors 3-1 in extra-time (5-3 on aggregate) in the hastily rearranged second leg of the Copa Libertadores final. The game had to be held in Madrid, after an attack on the Boca team bus by River fans led to the initial staging at River’s stadium being abandoned twice last month. Now they are over that, they move quickly on to the Club World Cup where South American opposition have only lorded it over their European rivals four times (and just once in the last 11 years) in the history of the 14-edition tournament. An Argentinian side has never won despite reaching four finals, and somehow River’s preparation hasn’t seemed the most stress-free.
Al Ain (UAE)
Qualify as: UAE champions
Previous appearances: 0
Best finish: —
Coach: Zoran Mamic
One to watch: Marcus Berg
The hosts have been set rather a tall order by their predecessors Al Jazira, who broke the record for the furthest a UAE side had gone in this tournament last year by reaching the semi-finals, before losing 2-1 to eventual winners Real Madrid. Before that, on the only other two occasions the tournament was held in the UAE, Al Ahli crashed out 2-0 to Auckland in the play-off in 2009 and Al Wahda lost 4-1 to Seongnam in the quarters in 2010. Al Ain will be expected to put up more of fight as record 13-time UAE league champions (Al Jazira only have two titles in comparison), but the truth is they are coming in beat. They sold their best player Omar Abdul Rahman to Al Hilal over the summer, have just been knocked out of the President’s Cup Last 16 by Al Wasl, and can’t pull away from Sharjah, who are level with them at the top of the UAE league.
Kashima Antlers (Japan)
Qualify as: Asian Champions
Previous appearances: 2016
Best finish: losing finalists
Coach: Go Oiwa
One to watch: Yuma Suzuki
You may remember this side for being the first Asian team to reach the Fifa Club World Cup final in Yokohama in 2016, when they were a real thorn in Madrid’s side, holding the Spanish giants to a 2-2 draw in normal time before falling to two Cristiano Ronaldo goals, who completed his hat-trick, in extra-time. Now they are back for only their second appearance in the tournament and ironically they remain on a collision course again to face Real, this time in the semi-final on December 19, provided they first beat Guadalajara in the quarters on Saturday. With Real not the force they were, currently placed fifth in La Liga, the Antlers will fancy their chances of finishing off the giant-killing attempt they started two years ago, but without the power of their 12th man with this being played in the UAE and not Japan this time, it remains to be seen if they can summon the same strength.
ES Tunis (Tunisia)
Qualify as: African champions
Previous appearances: 2011
Best finish: sixth
Coach: Moine Chaabani
One to watch: Anise Badri
Besides Kashima Antlers who were the first Asian side to reach the final in 2016, the usual monopoly held by European and South American sides in the Club World Cup final has otherwise only been disrupted twice, and that was by African teams. First Congo’s TP Mazembe lost 3-0 to Inter Milan in Abu Dhabi in 2010 and then Morocco’s Raja Casablanca lost 2-0 to Bayern Munich in Marrakesh in 2013. ES Tunis finished sixth after losing 2-1 to Qatar’s Al Sadd in the quarter and 3-2 to Mexico’s Monterrey in the fifth-place play-off in their only other appearance in Japan back in 2011. So, basically, anything they do now will be an improvement. Seeing as the best (and only other) finish by a Tunisian side at this tournament was fourth achieved by Etoile du Sahel in Japan in 2007, it makes the chances of ES pulling off a Mazembe or Casablanca-style run unlikely.
Qualify as: North and Central American champions
Previous appearances: 0
Best finish: —
Coach: Jose Cardozo
One to watch: Isaac Brizuela
There’s been a Mexican team at all 14 Club World Cups since the tournament’s 2000 inception, with the Central American country boasting more appearances than any other nation in the history of the event — even surpassing Spanish and Brazilian sides. Amazingly though, despite this ever presence, no Mexican team has ever gone further than the semi-finals, with only three Mexican teams finishing third. The fact Pachuca were the last to do so in Abu Dhabi just last year after Necaxa in Rio de Janeiro in 2000 and Monterrey in Japan in 2012, does give Guadalajara some hope of pushing on. However, they have never played in this tournament before, and are the only Mexican team to enforce a strict Mexican-only hiring policy, which while great for nationalistic pride and the health of the national team, it could limit them against sides that allow themselves to pick foreigners.
Wellington (New Zealand)
Qualify as: Oceanian champions
Previous appearances: 0
Best finish: —
Coach: Jose Manuel Figueira
One to watch: Hamish Watson
Ever since Australian teams left the Oceania Football Confederation and joined the Asian Champions League in 2006, teams from New Zealand have had an almost free reign over the Oceanian Club World Cup slot, except on one occasion in 2010 when Papa New Guineas’ Hekari United won the Oceanian Champions League and made it through. The trouble is these Oceanian sides are amateur and have next to no chance of holding their own against global heavyweights from other continents. Auckland City have dominated the berth for the past seven years and have continually finished last but for 2014 when they went on a miracle record run for an Oceanian side all the way to the semis, before finishing third in the play-off. First-timers Wellington can only dream of pulling off such a feat, but the fact it happened to Auckland will give everyone who backs the underdog some glimmer of hope.