While it may seem strange that reigning European champions Barcelona should be the underdogs for their semi-final clash at this year's FIFA Club World Cup Japan, that is exactly what Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard would have us believe. Lining up against the Catalan giants are Club America from Mexico, one of the biggest fish on the CONCACAF scene.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com prior to his side's opening game of the prestigious competition, Azulgrana coach Rijkaard was in typically reflective mood. From the team's base in the Japanese city of Yokohama, the former AC Milan star answered every question thoughtfully and clearly, showing all the insight and attention to detail that has guided his Barca squad to two consecutive La Liga titles and the UEFA Champions League crown.
FIFA.com: Mr. Rijkaard, how are Barcelona approaching their opening FIFA Club World Cup game?
Frank Rijkaard: I think that we're doing fine. I'm not sure if this is the best time (to be playing this tournament), but we're taking everything as it comes. We've had some good recent results, but what matters is how we perform once we're out there on the pitch. As far as I'm concerned, the team's mental state and attitude are what really count, because when the players are in the right frame of mind we play some really great stuff. Besides which, I'm convinced that we can put on better displays than we have done up until now.
What was your verdict on America's quarter-final performance ?
It wasn't a great game, but it proved to be a good opportunity to draw some interesting conclusions, and America were worthy winners. They are defensively well-organised and have a number of players who can hit you hard on the break like (Cuauhtemoc) Blanco, (Salvador) Cabanas, and (Claudio) 'El Piojo' Lopez - whose pace is always a threat. I was also impressed with (Alejandro) Arguello, Fabiano Pereira and (German) Villa, who kept the team ticking over from midfield.
Do you prefer to come up against teams like America, who play an attacking brand of football?
That depends. In this exact case, I don't in fact think that America are a particularly attacking side. As soon as they lose the ball, they all drop back into their own half to help out, it's not like they put pressure on you high up the field. It's only once they win the ball back that they turn into an attacking side, given that they have enough quality running through the team to cause you problems, as I mentioned before.
Hypothetically speaking, if you could choose one America player that you would prefer not to play in Thursday's game, who would it be and why?
(Thinks for a few moments) First and foremost, like any genuine sportsman I prefer to take on the very best teams including each and every one of their big-name stars. That's what gives you an extra motivational boost. That being the case, as far as I'm concerned I don't mind who plays. Having said that, I'd like to single out Blanco because of his intelligence and experience. He's reads the game so well and has an unerring knack of finding space. That makes him a player we'll need to keep a close eye on.
Several members of your squad have taken the unusual step of claiming that Barca are not favourites for this match. Would you agree with this assessment?
Yes, but you'd expect that. At this level preparation is the key and they are better prepared for this game than we are. America have an advantage over us in that they've been here longer, and so have had more time to adapt to the time difference. It's going to be a tough game and, yes, they're the favourites, though not by much.
Nevertheless, most observers have backed Barcelona as the heavy favourites to win the title. Are you afraid of failing to match these expectations?
No! I never think that I'm going to fail before I've started. I always have every confidence in what we're doing, and I'm convinced that preparing yourself for the fact that you might not achieve your objectives is by no means helpful. A sportsman has a duty to work hard and, when the moment arrives, do his job well.
Do you not find it stressful coaching a team that are expected to win every game?
No, because sportsmen need those pre-match nerves, which must be used in a positive fashion when you take the field. It's that rush of adrenaline which gives players the desire to get things underway and show exactly what they're capable of. Besides, it's an honour to be working for Barca, where winning is indeed important, but so too is making a good impression. Here we talk a great deal about how much it means to defend the reputation and colours of a club of this stature.
What is it like managing a team of superstars?
I don't think that there's any concrete formula (on how to do it). One thing that helps me is to remember that you are working with human beings, with people who want to laugh, play football and win things together. Yes, they are great players whose names are known around the world, but you've got to be true to yourself, without pretending to be something you're not. Here at Barcelona, we've the pleasure of working with a great squad of players, most of whom have been together for three or more years, and I continue to see the same positive mindset, togetherness, and team spirit.
What would winning the FIFA Club World Cup mean to Barcelona?
Listen, I prefer to take things one game at a time. First we need to face America, and then we'll see what happens. However, there's no doubt that this is a very prestigious trophy which would be a great addition to the club's honours list.