When Pep Guardiola took over at the helm of Bayern Munchen in the summer of 2013, many observers wondered how he could improve a side that had clinched the Bundesliga title, the DFB-Pokal and the UEFA Champions League crown just a few weeks beforehand.
Judging from the confidence and talent exhibited by his charges at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013, the Spaniard’s magic has not yet worn out.
In reality, it was no great surprise to see the German giants emerge victorious from the tournament for the first time, adding to a list of honours that includes the Club World Cup’s forerunner, the Intercontinental Cup, which they claimed in 1976 and 2001, when they beat the then South American champions Cruzeiro and Boca Juniors respectively.
“Everyone wants to win this competition, particularly the South Americans, who consider the champions to be the best club in the world,” explained Peruvian striker Claudio Pizarro, who played in the 2001 victory and was involved again in the Bavarians’ 2013 campaign.
Following their commanding displays in Morocco, fans all around the world, and not just in South America, are likely to accord Bayern that status.
The first team to come up short against them was China’s Guangzhou Evergrande, who proved powerless to prevent a 3-0 defeat at the semi-final stage, despite the tactical nous of their FIFA World Cup™-winning coach, Marcello Lippi.
It was a similar story in the final, where home favourites Raja Casablanca could not cope with the Germans’ dynamic attack, spearheaded by an on-song Franck Ribery, who received the adidas Golden Ball award for his efforts.
Raja against the odds
While Bayern’s triumph was somewhat expected, Raja’s results were not. The Casablanca outfit, reigning Moroccan champions but guilty of a poor start to this current campaign, had not had the ideal preparation for the event, losing three and drawing one of their last four matches.
Consequently, the club fired coach Mohamed Fakhir in the run-up to the tournament, replacing him with Tunisian tactician Faouzi Benzarti, who did not lack for experience, but only met his players for the first time three days before the opening match.
In the end, they still managed to find a way to pierce the defence of Auckland City, Adelilah Hafidi’s last-minute winner doing the damage. The Moroccans had opened the scoring only to concede an equaliser, and that scenario would repeat itself on two further occasions, against CF Monterrey in the quarter-finals, and Atletico Mineiro in the last four.
Instrumental in those unexpected victories was Raja’s talented spine, made up of goalkeeper Khalid Askri, midfielder Mohsine Moutaouali and forward Mouhssine Iajour, and their enthusiastic fans, who guaranteed some of the best stadium atmospheres the competition has ever seen. Even the Atletico supporters, over 10,000 of whom had travelled from Brazil, had trouble making themselves heard.
The Atletico players also struggled to properly stamp their authority on matches, despite their elevated reputation gained via a recent Copa Libertadores success and the presence of several Brazilian internationals – including Ronaldinho – in their ranks.
The former Barcelona star’s sublime set-piece leveller was not enough to prevent Raja from striking twice on the counter-attack towards the end of the encounter to fashion a memorable 3-1 win, a scoreline that consigned the CONMEBOL representatives to the match for third place for just the second time, after Internacional in 2010.
The Belo Horizonte-based side, who became continental champions for the first time in their history earlier this year, would eventually have to settle for third spot on the podium. Their beaten opponents in the play-off, Guangzhou, will likely be satisfied with fourth place, in what was the first appearance of a Chinese club at the Club World Cup.
The great success that they have recently enjoyed, which has seen them secure three consecutive Chinese League titles and a maiden AFC Champions League crown, owes a lot to the skills of Argentinian attacking midfielder Dario Conca, who pulled on the Guangzhou jersey for the last time in Morocco, having previously agreed to return to former club Fluminense.
One of the two goals he notched at the tournament came against Al-Ahly who, in their fifth appearance at this level, put in two disappointing performances, losing 2-0 to Guangzhou in the quarter-finals and crashing 5-1 to Monterrey in the match for fifth place.
In their defence, the only competitive matches that the Egyptians had been involved in prior to the big kick-off were CAF Champions League fixtures, with their domestic league having been suspended due to security concerns.
That constraint did not stop the Cairo heavyweights from lifting the continental trophy for the eighth time in November, but Mohamed Aboutrika, Wael Gomaa, Sherif Ekramy, Sherif Abdelfadeel, Emad Meteab and Mohamed Naguib, all now in their thirties, found the going considerably tougher in Morocco.
Delgado sets new record
Given that their last official match took place over a month before the contest began, a lack of competitive football may also have played a role in Monterrey’s failure to advance past the quarters.
After finishing fifth in 2011 and third in 2012, the Mexicans had high hopes of going one step further in their third successive appearance. In the end, they were incapable of finding a way past an inspired Raja ’keeper in Agadir, but they consoled themselves with fifth place and Cesar Delgado’s capture of the all-time Club World Cup scoring record.
Having bagged three goals at two previous competitions, the Argentinian’s brace against Al-Ahly brought his total up to five, which was enough to surpass Lionel Messi, Denilson and Aboutrika, who all have four to their name.
Unfortunately, Delgado will not have the chance to increase his tally in 2014, as Los Rayados did not qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League this season.
Auckland City, meanwhile, are hopeful of returning for a sixth time. Their five appearances to date, including Morocco 2013, have ended in first-round exits, but the New Zealanders, the only non-professional team present in North Africa, can hold their heads high, having only succumbed to a last-minute winner versus Raja Casablanca.
“We lost, but it was close and we showed that we were able to compete at this level, which is a big step for us,” said Ramon Tribulietx, the Navy Blues’ Spanish coach. “It was a great experience. We now want to keep improving and enhance the stature of the team.”
And that is what all of the participants at the Club World Cup have in common: irrespective of their nationality, style of play, quality of squad or level of experience, they are teams of stature that have made their mark. The impression left by Bayern in particular is unlikely to be forgotten.