“Many of football’s big names dream of playing in a Club World Cup semi-final against Barcelona, but we’re the ones who will have that pleasure,” said a beaming Nadir Belhadj after he helped Al-Sadd to one of their most memorable achievements to date.
The first quarter-final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011 pitted Asian champions Al-Sadd against their African counterparts, Esperance, in what promised to be a tight encounter. Al-Sadd’s Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati sent his men out to play as a solid unit and resist Esperance’s attacking threat, while making the most of their own pacy forwards to cause damage at the other end. The plan paid off, with the Qatari side now safely through to the last four of the competition.
FIFA.com caught up with Belhadj for an interview as he left the dressing room after the match. The versatile Algerian wide-man was one of the architects of Al-Sadd’s hard-fought 2-1 victory over Esperance, whose defeated players cut dejected figures at the final whistle.
“We’d expected that kind of attacking approach from Esperance, who really are a good team,” said Belhadj, clearly delighted to have played a part in coach Fossati’s winning tactical system. “By playing in a compact and disciplined manner, it was obvious that we’d get chances. The Tunisians weren’t able to make the difference when they had the opportunity. We took our chances and held on well for 90 minutes. The coach switched from four in defence to five, which helped create more space in front of the midfielders."
In the 49th minute and with Al-Sadd leading 1-0, Belhadj stood over a free-kick in an apparently innocuous position. What followed was a well-executed set-piece, proving that time spent on the training pitch is seldom wasted. The 29-year-old’s long ball into the box found Lee Jung-Soo, who nodded back across goal for defender Abdulla Koni to apply the finishing touch. “He [Koni] is not used to scoring goals, so I’m happy for him,” said Belhadj, who sometimes spends up to 45 minutes at a time practising set-pieces with his team-mates.
Just 18 months after he joined Al-Sadd in 2010, Belhadj already has an AFC Champions League winner’s medal to his name and the exciting prospect of a FIFA Club World Cup semi-final against Barcelona just days away. “We should treat this match as a celebration,” he said. “We’ll be well-prepared to put in a good performance, but the main aim will be to enjoy ourselves. We’ll need to pull together.”
“This Barça side is the best in the world, as we saw once again with their impressive display in the Clasico against Real Madrid,” added Belhadj, who counts Lyon among his former clubs. “We mustn’t focus on one player alone, because the danger can come from anywhere. You only need to look at the kind of level their youngsters are capable of playing at,” he added.
So, does Belhadj think Al-Sadd’s hopes of reaching the final amount to anything more than a dream? “We’re talking about Barcelona here, so we have to stay focused,” said the Algerian international. “Lionel Messi and Barça are on another planet. We’ll play with the resources we have, and with a group of players that has already helped us to achieve big things. The chance to face Barcelona is extremely satisfying in itself,” added the former Portsmouth player, who has already faced Messi at international level and crossed swords with reigning European champions Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League while at Lyon.
Belhadj knows first-hand that when it comes to facing Barcelona, and Messi in particular, simply doing your homework is rarely enough. “It is possible to guess what Messi is going to do, but actually stopping him from doing it is another matter,” he concluded.