America and Jeonbuk seek Barcelona showdown
A semi-final berth at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 and the chance to topple Spain's FC Barcelona is not normally the sort of prize you get for winning one game, but that is precisely what will be on offer this Monday 11 December at Tokyo National Stadium . Vying for the chance to face the European champions will be Mexico's Club America and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC of Korea Republic when the pair meet in the second quarter-final of the world's premier club tournament.
What is certain is that the team who do prevail will have to be at their very best, such is the reward at stake. On paper at least, the odds seem to favour the North/Central America and Caribbean Zone champions, but the AFC representatives are ready to defy the odds and make their mark in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Attack-minded yes, unbalanced no
America coach Luis Fernando Tena has been showing the utmost respect for Jeonbuk in the build-up to the game. "The six clubs in Japan are here because they're champions of their own confederations, so they all have a chance of winning," the coach said. "We've been following the Korean side for the last two months, and now have detailed information on their best players and playing styles. That said, we have a playing style of our own, which is to keep the ball on the deck, circulate it well, orchestrate our moves and make penetrating attacks. We intend to be faithful to that," he added.
For their opening game at Japan 2006, the Mexican outfit are expected to keep the backbone of the side the same as in their domestic championship, with goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, defender Dulio Davino, midfielder German Villa and front man Cuathemoc Blanco. Even though the club's supporters will be hoping to see an attack-minded formation, Tena will not be throwing caution to the wind. "Yes, we do have a lot of potential match-winners among our forwards, like Claudio Lopez, Salvador Cabanas, Nelson Cuevas, Matias Vuoso and Blanco, but that doesn't mean they'll all play at the same time. We need to make sure we can still win back possession in midfield and keep a balance. We could use that (formation) at some stage of the game, but you're unlikely to see it from the start," explained the Eagles coach.
As well as deciding on his side's optimum formation, Tena also has to ensure that his side are not thinking ahead to a possible meeting with Barcelona before they have even faced Jeonbuk.
"Mentally, our players are very strong, and this will be an ideal opportunity to show that. They need to focus on their Korean opponents and no one else," he insists.
Ready, in spite of setbacks
The 'comeback kings', as Jeonbuk came to be known during this year's AFC Champions League after turning around a series of seemingly hopeless scorelines, are a very compact unit, although the absence of several key midfielders is bound to affect their formation. The loss of central midfielder Kwon Jip (to an ankle injury) and left winger Yeom Ki-Hun (to the national team competing at the Asian Games) will force coach Choi Kang-Hee to shuffle his pack. Yet in spite of this, he remains optimistic. "Everyone is asking me if I've been studying the America side, and the answer is yes. We've been compiling information for the last three weeks and so are ready to face them. What's important, however, is that we play to our strengths and show everyone what we can do. If we manage that, then we can get a good result."
Speaking about the threat posed by the opposition, Kim Hyun-Su, team captain and a key member of the Jeonbuk rearguard alongside veteran Choi Jin-Cheul, stated: "America are a side that can really run at you, which is why we need to concentrate at the back, break up their attacks and then launch our own." In that department, the Korean side will looking for inspiration from their two Brazilians: playmaker Botti and striker Ze Carlos.
For many of the Jeobunk players, the possibility of facing Barcelona is an added motivation. At 35, defender Choi Jin-Cheul knows the chance may not come around again soon. "Our main objective is to beat America to play then against Barcelona. Playing against a club like that with all their history would be a dream come true, not just for the youngsters in the side, but also for us veterans."
So will it be Mexico's America or Korea's Jeonbuk who earn the right to take on Barca for a place in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006? All will be revealed on Monday…