Destiny beckons for Barcelona and Internacional
No sooner had the draw for the third FIFA Club World Cup been made than pundits and fans alike began talking of the 'dream final'.
Sure enough, European champions Barcelona and their South American counterparts Internacional safely negotiated their respective semi-final appointments to set up an eagerly anticipated summit meeting in Yokohama on Sunday.
As if expectation levels were not high enough, Barca added a little extra spice to an already appetising final by turning on the style against Club America in a scintillating semi-final display.
However much Rijkaard and his men try to play down their championship chances, the fact is that their 4-0 victory over the Mexicans , the biggest in the tournament's short history, has only served to confirm their status as favourites.
That said, it would foolish to write off the Porto Alegre side's chances. Although their showing against Al-Ahly was solid rather than spectacular, Abel Braga's men have more than enough firepower at their disposal to become the third Brazilian team to hoist the trophy aloft.
'We can play better'
Frank Rijkaard and Ronaldinho may have played down Barcelona's chances before Thursday's clinical demolition job, but no one seems to be taking them too seriously.
"Good grief," exclaimed one Mexican journalist good-humouredly after the final whistle had blown. "If that's how they play when they're not favourites, just imagine how many they'll score when they actually are." One can only imagine what our correspondent must have thought when the Barca camp told the world afterwards that there is room for improvement.
"We've produced better performances than that both in the league and the Champions League," said Ronaldinho . "And we'll need to hit that kind of form again if we want to beat Inter." A product of the youth academy of Internacional's deadly rivals Gremio, 'Ronnie' will not be lacking in motivation when he steps on to the pitch on Sunday. The Brazilian wizard was keen to play down the connection, though. "The game against Inter is special because it's the final of a tournament Barcelona have never won, not because I used to play for Gremio," he commented.
Midfield partner-in-crime Deco is another one who believes the Catalan giants can shift up a gear or two. "I reckon we can pick up our game a little more and it would be great to do that against Inter," the Portuguese livewire told FIFA.com. "That doesn't make us firmer favourites though. Sunday's a final and in finals there are no favourites."
Rijkaard is approaching the showdown with relish. "There are certain things we can improve on, such as our concentration levels," explained the Blaugrana coach. "What's more, our opponents have spent more time here in Japan and that gives them a slight advantage going into the game. I don't fear them, though, anything but. I'm really looking forward to facing them. They're South American champions, they've got some quality players and they come from a country with an unparalleled footballing tradition. I'm sure it's going to be a great game for the fans."
History would seem to be on the Dutchman's side. It was 17 y ears ago to the day on Sunday that he won his first Intercontinental Cup as a member of the AC Milan side that defeated Atletico Nacional of Colombia 1-0. He picked up his second winners' medal the following year when the Italians overcame Olimpia of Paraguay 3-0 to retain the trophy. Should his charges see off Inter tomorrow, he would become the first European to win the coveted trophy as both a player and coach, and only the third person in the tournament's history after the Uruguayans Luis Cubilla and Juan Mujica. What everyone wants to know is: can Inter stop him?
Respect yes, fear no
Despite their admiration for the Spaniards' five-star showing against America, the Inter squad believe they can stop them in their tracks, goalkeeper Clemer among them.
"Every game is different," he commented. "Barca are one of the best sides in the world and naturally we respect them, but only up to a certain point. We're not going to change the way we play, and when we've got the ball we're going to attack them because you can't win by just sitting back and defending. Let me tell you, we haven't come here on holiday. We're here to win the title."
The question is, just how are Inter going to go about that? "Barcelona won't have it as easy as they did against America," vowed coach Abel Braga . "We'll be giving it all we've got. We'll be staying very close to Ronaldinho and we can't give him any space to play in. Then it's a question of attacking them."
Skipper Fernandao expanded on his side's tactics for the big game. "You can't let them play the ball out from defence and dominate possession," he explained. "If you force them to bring the keeper into play then you can get amongst them. That's where we can get some joy." The striker is not just thinking about Barcelona, however. "We got through our opening game unscathed and we'll be little more relaxed now. I just hope they believe that the Al Ahly performance was the best we can do," he added.
Midfield man Edinho also had some interesting tactical observations to make: "We have to stop them moving the ball around quickly. We need to get hold of the ball as much as we can and not give away possession in the midfield, because if we do then our strikers will be feeding off scraps. It also goes without saying that we need to take our chances. America didn't, and look what happened."
The time for talking is nearly over and the dream final, to be played in front of a capacity 70,000 crowd, is almost upon us. Can Barcelona reach perfection? Can Inter thwart the much-vaunted Catalan attack and exert some attacking pressure of their own? All will be revealed tomorrow.