The focus ahead of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 semi-final between Mexican side Club America and FC Barcelona has been almost exclusively on the Spaniards. The European star ensemble, featuring the likes of serial World Player of the Year nominee Ronaldinho , Italian FIFA World Cup winner Gianluca Zambrotta and Portugal schemer Deco, represent far and away the biggest draw in Japan, both for the fans and the media. The UEFA Champions League winners rate as overwhelming favourites to claim the world crown.
The media circus accompanying Barcelona is by no means bad news for Club America, who enter Thursday's match completely free of pressure or the weight of expectation. Nor can the CONCACAF champions be dismissed as also-rans: Las Aquilas (the Eagles) rank as one of the most successful clubs in the history of Mexican football with ten domestic league titles and five triumphs in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. America boast star names of their own in the shape of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and former Valencia marksman Claudio Lopez.
Veteran Mexico playmaker Blanco, unquestionably the North Americans' figurehead, is as determined as the rest of his team to return to Mexico with the trophy in his baggage. "We have to give winning the tournament our very best shot, and we'll do everything we can to reach the final," the 34-year-old promised.
That will entail cutting out the unforced errors which marked America's opening match against Korean side Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors . "They only had any chances because we made errors," summarised keeper Guillermo Ochoa after blunting a number of dangerous Korean forays in an impressive display. "We can't afford the luxury of mistakes against Barcelona. We'll be brutally punished if we do. In football, the team making the most errors loses the match."
Frank Rijkaard's charges certainly have a history of clinically capitalising on their opponents' mistakes. America coach Luis Fernando Tena offered a glimpse of the tactical thinking designed to counter that danger. "We'll have to attack, we can't allow ourselves to be penned back," the coach mused. The teams have in fact already met this year in a friendly, although the 4-4 scoreline on that occasion seems unlikely to be repeated in a semi-final with a tilt at a world championship at stake.
Nevertheless, the crowd can reasonably expect to witness plenty of attacking football, as both teams have declared their willingness to go for goal. "We meet a focused, perfect team on Thursday. We'll have to concentrate a little harder than Barcelona, and we'll have to take the chances which come our way," Tena observed, recalling his side's profligacy in front of goal against Jeonbuk. The Eagles eventually defeated the Koreans by the only goal of the game, but could easily have taken a commanding position early on in the first half, and missed a string of presentable openings after that. Instead, America had to wait until ten minutes from time for Ricardo Rojas to bundle a Cabanas cross over the line. "It was hardly a spectacular goal, but it's put us through to the semi-finals," the scorer grinned.
The Mexicans will really not care too much about scoring in style on Thursday provided the ball ends up in the Catalan net. Coach Tena identified the vital ingredient his side would require for that to happen: "The thing we most need against Barcelona is luck. They have the best players in the world, and they're a fantastic team."
The Eagles know they have a unique opportunity to show how high they can fly, although Blanco had a word of advice for his team-mates: "If we want to beat Barcelona, we'll have to be a lot less tense." By Thursday evening, the world will know whether the Eagles have soared into the final, or were forced to land short of their goal.