Auckland face Al Ahly in opener
This season's FIFA Club World Cup opens on 10 December with the meeting between Oceania champions Auckland City and their African counterparts Al Ahly at the Toyota Stadium in Nagoya.
As CAF Champions League winners, the Egyptians are making their second successive appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup. And just as in their debut in 2005, they have been drawn to play a team from Oceania. On that occasion, Al Ahly fell 2-1 in the fifth-place play-off against Australian cracks FC Sydney, a result which remains the solitary triumph for an Oceania-based team in five matches at the tournament. For their part, Auckland are determined to double that total.
The New Zealanders are understandably wary of their powerful African opponents, but fully intend to make a fight of it. "We have a huge amount of respect for Al Ahly. They have plenty of experience in winning matches and trophies," coach Alan Jones declared following the Auckland squad's arrival in Tokyo. "But my players are looking forward to the tournament. They're fired up, and they're certainly not scared about any of our forthcoming matches."
Jones, who recently succeeded Roger Wilkinson as head coach, made no secret of his delight at leading his men into a very special contest. "It's the culmination of two, or in certain cases, three years of hard work. We don't want to fall at the final hurdle."
Auckland pulled off a coup in advance of the tournament with the capture of former Japan international Teruo Ivamoto, guaranteeing a wave of interest and support from the locals.
Jones and his men are unmistakably proud at simply qualifying for the tournament in the first place. Auckland City are the first New Zealand club to make the FIFA Club World Cup , Australian sides having represented Oceania in both previous contests.
Auckland certainly qualified in style, scoring 23 goals in five matches en route to their Champions League triumph, including a 9-1 thrashing administered to Nokia Eagles of Fiji at the semi-final stage. However, Jones is without one of his key individuals in Japan, as Dean Gordon completed a switch to the Australian A-League a few days ago. Only time will tell whether the Oceania champions successfully overcome the loss of a true stalwart.
Africans 'reaching for the stars'
Over in the opposing camp, the Egyptians are determined to erase the memory of last year's disappointment by registering a first tournament victory. Al Ahly fell 1-0 to Asian outfit Al Ittihad 12 months ago, before the defeat to Sydney in the match for fifth place.
Al Ahly are the first team to make a repeat appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup. "We're delighted at taking part in this tournament again. We want to perform well in Japan, and correct the poor impression we left behind last year," coach Manuel Jose declared.
The record books contain little encouragement for the CAF champions, as African teams have lost all five matches they have contested at the tournament to date. Raja Casablanca from Morocco came away empty-handed from three matches back in 2000.
Egyptian hopes for a better showing this time rest squarely on Mohamed Aboutrika's shoulders. The playmaker is the undisputed star of the side, and finished in the top five in the poll for African Player of the Year. In this term's Champions League, claimed by Al Ahly with a narrow victory in the second leg of the final against Tunisian outfit Sfaxien, the 28-year-old finished joint leading scorer with Didier Ya Konan of Cote d'Ivoire side ASEC Abidjan, and could play a pivotal role against the New Zealanders.
The Africans also know they will have a hard job compensating for the loss of two of their key players. "Obviously, we'll miss Mohamed Barakat. He has a huge role in our team, but he's injured at the moment. The same applies to Gilberto, because he's another important man for our system," Aboutrika reported.
The tactician remains confident of making progress compared to last year. "The way it looks at the moment, we've just started to hit form. If we can maintain the balance within the team, we could be reaching for the stars."