Club elite taking shape
© Foto-net

Question: What do Estudiantes, Barcelona, Atlante, Auckland City and Al Ahli all have in common? Answer: All five of them will be heading to the United Arab Emirates in December, intent on claiming the FIFA Club World Cup crown currently held by English giants Manchester United.

FIFA.com runs the rule over the quintet of qualifiers, who will be joined in the Middle East by the champions of the African and Asian Champions Leagues, competitions which come to a close later in the year.

As everyone knows, day breaks earlier in Oceania than anywhere else in the world. It was perhaps fitting, then, that New Zealand's Auckland City were the first side to book their place at UAE 2009. Finalists in 2006, the Kiwi representatives beat Koloale of the Solomon Islands 9-4 on aggregate in the O-League final back in May to book their place in the sun.

The team has come on a lot in the last two years and the fact they've reached the Club World Cup played a big part in my decision to join.
Atlante's Santiago Solari

Within a matter of days they were joined by Atlante, who edged out compatriots Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League decider. The Mexicans are taking their FIFA Club World Cup debut very seriously and have already started to build a team with the tournament in mind, with strikers Giancarlo Maldonado and Rafael Marquez being joined by a high-quality creator in the shape of the Argentinian Santiago Solari.

"The team has come on a lot in the last two years and the fact they've reached the Club World Cup played a big part in my decision to join," said the former River Plate, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Inter Milan star. "It's a big challenge but it's very exciting too."

One of the sides posing a challenge to the Iron Colts will be home favourites Al Ahli. The Dubai side, coached by former Romanian international, Ioan Andone, who led CFR Cluj into the UEFA Champions League, won their national league at the end of May, thus becoming the country's first representatives in the biggest club competition on the globe.

The big favourites
Since its inception in 2000 the final of the FIFA Club World Cup has always been a showdown between South American and European sides. And given that historical precedent, Barcelona and Estudiantes go into the tournament as the teams to beat.

The Spaniards, who thrilled the world with a sublime performance against Manchester United in the final of the UEFA Champions League, will no doubt be wary of the Argentinians, having lost out to Brazilian outfit Internacional of Porto Alegre in the 2006 final.

One man determined to avenge that defeat is Lionel Messi, who is eagerly anticipating a possible decisive duel with his compatriots. "I was very happy when I heard that Estudiantes had won the Copa Libertadores, particularly for (Juan) Veron," he said. "I'd love to play against them in the UAE but more than anything else so we can repeat everything we've achieved this year."

No sooner had his side defeated Cruzeiro in the final of the Copa Libertadores to deny Brazilian football a place in the finals for a third consecutive year, than Veron, aka La Brujita, began looking ahead to a possible match-up with the classy Catalans.

I was very happy when I heard that Estudiantes had won the Copa Libertadores, particularly for (Juan) Veron.
Barcelona star Lionel Messi

"I've already thought about playing Barcelona and about El Chavo (Leandro) Desabato marking Messi. It just makes me want to laugh out loud. We'll need to blow that part of the pitch up," joked the Estudiantes skipper, who returned to the club three years ago and has already achieved all the objectives he set himself. The talk is that the Argentinians will be bringing more big names to boost their UAE challenge and set the seal on a glorious few months on and off the pitch.

Hoping to stop them and Barcelona from setting up a dream final will be the Asian and African champions, whose identity will not be revealed until November. Given the quality of the UAE line-up, the AFC and CAF standard bearers will know the scale of the task awaiting them when the world's most glittering club football show finally gets under way.