With Al Ahly's crowning as African champions on Saturday, the line-up for the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005 is now complete. The six teams to qualify for the knockout tournament scheduled from 11-18 December are Al Ahly (Egypt, CAF), Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia, AFC), Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica, CONCACAF), Liverpool (England, UEFA), Sao Paulo (Brazil, conmebol) and Sydney (Australia, OFC).
Al Ahly's 3-0 second leg defeat of Tunisia's Etoile Sahel in the final of the African Champions League continued their amazing winning streak that now stretches to 18 months, a statistic that makes them a serious contender for the world title. Under the astute gaze of Portuguese coach Manuel Jose and inspired by the performances of midfielder Mohamed Barakat, the club by the banks of the River Nile have flourished. But if the Red Devils are to strike more gold in the Far East then they must first (quarter-final, Tokyo 11 December) overcome a formidable opponent in Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad.
The Jeddah giants have been equally awesome in their own Asian division, knocking out in devastating fashion all challengers to retain their mantle as Asia's number one team. The Tigers had already plundered the transfer market in the summer with the one-year loan acquisitions of Sierra Leone's Mohamed Kallon from Monaco and Cameroon's Joseph Desire Job from Middlesbrough, and although the heart of the side has a strong local beat, do not be surprised if more big names set sail for the Gulf ahead of the world finals. The Arab champions mean business.
Waiting for the winners in the semi-finals (Tokyo, 14 December) are Copa Libertadores holders Sao Paulo. Breathtaking in their run to continental glory, the Tricolores', twice Toyota Cup champions (1992 and 1993), will be looking to add a third world title to their name and another strike for South America. The Brazilians, bolstered by the goalscoring abilities of keeper Rogerio Ceni and blessed by the presence of Cicinho and Grafite, are sure to be a team to watch.
Barely a year old, Oceania's champions Sydney are readying for their biggest day out. After a long unbeaten run, they have taken time to find their feet in the new Australian A-League but now up with the leaders, are hitting top form just at the right moment. Coached by German legend and former Yokohama FC boss Pierre Littbarski and including the iconic Kazu Miura, on-loan from Yokohama, the Australians should be able to draw on the support of locals in the quest for glory in Japan.
Meeting them in the quarter-finals (Toyota City, 12 December) will be Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa. Led by former great Hernan Medford and spearheaded by the robust Ronald Gomez, the Purple Monster have devoured all before them so far in this year's championship and sit pretty at the top of the Tico table.
The winners of that battle must face European giants Liverpool in the last four (Yokohama, 15 December). The UEFA Champions League winners have gone from strength-to-strength in Europe since that memorable night in Istanbul back in May, and are well on course to reach this season's knockout stage. English backbone and a strong Spanish presence have blended well and their star-studded line up performed more heroics in the latest round of international matches.
The road to Japan is getting shorter by the day.