Almost exactly a year ago, Pachuca touched down in Japan with high expectations ahead of the FIFA Club World Cup 2007. The Mexican side claimed not to be overawed by the presence of footballing giants AC Milan and Boca Juniors, justifiably pointing to their haul of two domestic and three international titles in the preceding 18 months.
Yet for all of that, Los Tuzos ended up on the first flight home after crashing out in their first game, against Tunisia's Etoile du Sahel. Not even spirited performances from several players, including Christian Gimenez, proved a consolation, as the misfiring team saw their dreams of a world title go up in smoke.
"It's one thing to be eliminated by Boca Juniors; that can happen," Gimenez told FIFA.com. "Indeed, we were expecting to have a tough game against them [in the semi-final], but we never imagined we could play well, create chances and still be eliminated in our first game. In the end, Etoile scored, we didn't and we were out."
Four months after that chastening experience in Japan, the Hidalgo side earned the right to return with victory over Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa in the final of the CONCACAF Champions Cup. A chance for revenge then? Not exactly, says the player known as El Chaco. "I don't know if it's about settling scores, maybe there is a bit of that. For us, however, returning provides an important opportunity. [Last year] we had what we call one of life's experiences, but it was a negative one, as we had to return home so early."
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Learning from experience
The squad Pachuca take to Japan will be very similar to the one used last year, with minimal changes to the nucleus of the starting eleven. It is a side with such good understanding that Gimenez and his team-mates often appear to pick out each other without even looking up. "Last year's experience [in Japan] will help us in terms of our preparation and our approach. We can also learn a lot from the negative aspects," says the attacking midfielder.
One of the big differences this time around will be the condition of the team when they arrive in Japan. At the previous edition, Los Tuzos came into the event on the back of almost 18 months of non-stop national and international commitments. This year, however, the team have had plenty of time to replenish their energy levels for the showpiece event.
"We expect to arrive in better shape. This year we'll go into the event having had a lighter schedule both in terms of games played and physical demands," says El Chaco. "The fact that we haven't played in as many tournaments together could be a factor, but bit by bit, the team is improving. The [recently completed] Mexican league championship is a good tournament, so we'll be arriving in the best possible condition to do well in Japan."
While the meeting of Milan and Boca in last year's final surprised very few people, there is no doubt the clear favourites this year will be Manchester United. For their part, Los Tuzos begin their quest for glory at the quarter-final stage against Egypt's Al Ahly. Should they overcome the north Africans, their opponents in the semi-finals would be Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito. The Ecuadorian side surprised many people by claiming this year's Copa Libertadores crown, but have subsequently parted company with several of their top players.
And though a place in the final looks a possibility, Gimenez prefers to err on the side of caution: "There could be a surprise like there was in our first game last year, when we were knocked out. I believe it'll be a Club World Cup where, with the exception of Manchester, all the other teams will be fighting to reach the final."
Life and soul of the party
Prior to this interview with FIFA.com, several members of the Pachuca squad participated in a press conference with visiting reporters from Japan. The language barrier proved no problem, at least for Gimenez, who was his typical humorous self when exchanging banter with his team-mates and the journalists.
"Yes, that's typical of me," the 27-year-old tells us. "I try to enjoy what I do. I'm older now and have a spent a good few years in football, so I try to take pleasure from it. But day in, day out, whether it's at home or here at the club, when I have serious work to do, I knuckle down. At the same time, you have to keep calm about things and try to stay in a good mood," the player says as he brings the interview to a close. "That's the way I am and always have been, both during good times and bad."