Lopez relishing second chance
© AFP

With the disappointment of exiting the FIFA Club World Cup 2007 at the first hurdle still fresh in their minds, Mexican side Pachuca are determined to show their true worth at Japan 2008. "After the way we were knocked out last year, when we didn't perform as we'd hoped, our thoughts immediately turned to setting the record straight," Los Tuzos' Leobardo Lopez told FIFA.com.

"We knew we'd get another chance to go (to Japan) if we won the CONCACAF [Champions Cup] and with God's help we did it. Now we have to focus on putting in a fine performance and giving a very good account of ourselves."

The team from Hidalgo state have kept the nucleus of last year's squad intact, though the centre-back feels the players' mental sharpness will help them improve on Japan 2007. "We now know that this is a unique opportunity to go that bit further," says Lopez. "We're all going with that mindset, with the aim of getting through that first match, of giving our all and not letting our involvement end there again. We intend to be as focused as possible from the off and do things properly."

In the wake of Los Tuzos' showing at Japan 2007, when they were beaten 1-0 by Tunisia's Etoile Sportive du Sahel in Tokyo, reasons including overconfidence, fatigue and a lack of concentration were all cited as having contributed to the team's failure. This time around, however, Pachuca did not qualify for Mexico's end-of-season title play-offs, a fact that Lopez feels "will give us more time to prepare (for Japan 2008) in the best possible way".

One step at a time
At the 2007 edition of the showpiece event, a final clash between AC Milan and Boca Juniors was always on the cards, whereas Manchester United are heavily favoured to reach the Japan 2008 decider in Yokohama on 21 December. However, given the international pedigree of 2008 Copa Libertadores winners Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito does not match that of fellow South Americans Boca, will this year's FIFA Club World Cup be a more open affair? "They (Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito) will travel to Japan focused on reaching the final," says Lopez.

"We know that Manchester are a big club and are certain to be in the final, and we'd love to get there and compete for the title against them - it would be an important and unforgettable experience. But we're taking things step by step," said the central defender, whose team begin their campaign against Al Ahly of Egypt on 13 December.

To date, the best performance from a Mexican team at a FIFA Club World Cup was by Necaxa at the inaugural edition of the event in Brazil in 2000. In fact, the Azteca outfit finished second ahead of Manchester United in Group B of that competition before beating Spanish giants Real Madrid on penalties in the match for third place. Can a Mexican side do so well again?

"Let's hope so. Pachuca have already won one very big international trophy (the 2006 Copa Sudamericana), which was unprecedented for a Mexican team," said Lopez. "Let's hope we can keep giving Mexico a good name, and that we can take that small step that our country needs."

Tricolor ambition
The 25-year-old has held a regular starting berth at Pachuca for three years now, successfully making the transition from promising youngster into an established figure on the domestic scene.

As Lopez himself admits, the last 12 months have been a key period in his burgeoning career: "Loads of things have happened. I've picked up experience, I've been involved with the national team - I've learned a lot," said the player, who hails from Cortijo Viejo in the state of Michoacan. "Let's hope it pays off at the Club World Cup, particularly when it comes to staying more composed during matches."

Unfortunately for his national-team hopes, Mexico are currently well supplied with high-class central defenders. While Rafael Marquez and Jonny Magallon are at the top of the pecking order, Lopez finds himself jostling for position with players of the calibre of Aaron Galindo, Francisco Javier Rodriguez and Hector Moreno, all of whom are playing their club football in Europe.

Does Lopez feel that his performances at Japan 2008 could pave the way to a place with El Tri? "Of course, and not just my displays at the Club World Cup either. I approach every game with that in mind as I know there are some very big-name players in the national team."

"I just focus on doing my job well for my club and on improving my performances with every game," said Lopez, who in a matter of days could potentially be up against Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

"You always have to think big and of course I think about this and imagine what something that huge would be like," continued Lopez, as the conversation draws to a close. "I just hope that happens because it would mean we're on the right track and in the final."