Mind games are part and parcel of the countdown to any big match, and the build-up to Thursday's FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 semi-final clash between Club America of Mexico and Spain's Barcelona FC has been no exception. Coaches and players on both sides have been busy gearing themselves up for the big event and trying to score a psychological point or two over their rivals.
America defender Ricardo Rojas played his part by insisting that the Catalan giants are overwhelming favourites to go through. "We're very much the underdogs and I think that could work to our advantage," surmised the man who scored his side's winner against Korea Republic's Jeonbuk Motor in the quarter-finals. "People don't expect as much from us, so let's hope we can capitalise on that," he added.
Fresh from his fine performance against the Koreans, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was beating a similar drum to his team-mate. "Barcelona are a totally different side to Jeonbuk and they're used to making all the running in games like this," he explained. "That means we can't afford to make any mistakes, because they'll make us pay for it. We want to win for sure but we've got to be clever about it."
Brazilian magician Ronaldinho was keen to pick up the gauntlet for Barcelona and although his choice of words may have differed, the intention was much the same - to put the pressure all on the opposing side. "This is the first time since I joined that we've not been favourites going into a tournament," he said to the surprise of the assembled press. "We've just arrived here and we haven't got used to the time difference yet. America have been here for a few days already and have got over their jet lag, and that makes them favourites."
Barca coach Frank Rijkaard was not one to disagree with his star performer. "Preparation is vital at this level and they're better prepared for this game than we are," the Dutch coach told FIFA.com. "We're at a disadvantage because America arrived here before us and they've been able to adapt much better to the time difference. It's sure to be a tough match, and they'll start the game slight favourites."
Love them or loathe them, statistics are a key part in any big-match build-up. Aside from the 4-4 draw the two sides played out in a pre-season friendly this year, this is the second time that Spanish and Mexican clubs have gone head-to-head at a FIFA Club World Cup. Back in 2000 Necaxa and Real Madrid fought out a 1-1 draw with the Mexicans prevailing in the resulting penalty shootout.
On the downside for America, no CONCACAF side have ever recorded a tournament win over 90 minutes against a UEFA counterpart. In that same tournament in 2000, Necaxa also drew 1-1 with Manchester United, while Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica were soundly beaten 3-0 by Liverpool in 2005.
However, the Mexicans do have one ace up their sleeve in former Argentine international Claudio Lopez. El Piojo racked up no fewer than 12 goals against Barcelona in a successful spell with Spanish outfit Valencia. "Yes, I always seem to do well against them, but every game is different. They've got so many stars in their team and it's going to be tough," he assured. Barca skipper Carles Puyol had warm words for the elusive striker. "We know he's a great player. He's very quick and difficult to mark, but we've got to work together and make sure we cut off the supply to him," he commented. And one final statistic: no Mexican side have ever failed to score in a game in the competition's short history.
For his part, the unruffled Rijkaard, a two-time winner of the Toyota Cup with Italy's AC Milan in 1990 and 1991, sets little store by statistics, or history for that matter. "There's no point in thinking about the past. I prefer to take things game by game. We play America today, and then we'll see. The only thing I've said to my players about those achievements is that Milan arrived in Japan determined to become champions. I'm sure they got the message."