Old and new clash in Japan
It will be a case of 70 years of footballing pedigree versus 13 months of graft when CONCACAF Champions Deportivo Saprissa take on Oceania Champions Sydney FC in the second quarter-final of the FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup Japan 2005 at the Toyota Stadium on Monday 12 December at 19.20 (local time).
On paper, Saprissa's 23 domestic titles make them favourites to prevail against one of the youngest clubs in the world. However, once the ball starts rolling, history and statistics fly out the window and it is goals that count - something Saprissa coach Hernán Medford knows only too well. "There's nothing to choose between the two sides at the moment. We'll wait for the game to finish before deciding who's favourite."
Privately however, Medford must hope that having kept 95% of the squad together over the last three years, the players' increased understanding and awareness should pay dividends out on the pitch. Continuity and tradition are a big part of Saprissa's philosophy, with only Costa Ricans being able to wear the famous purple shirts. Saprissa players also make up the backbone of the current national side with established stars like Walter Centeno, Ronald Gómez and José Francisco Porras rubbing shoulders with young hopefuls Christian Bolaños and Alonso Solís.
Having spent many hours analysing their opponent's play, Medford believes that his side's technical ability could be the key to success. "Sydney are physically much stronger than we are, so we'll need to play technical, attractive and effective football and use the width of the pitch to our advantage. That's the way to beat them," he added.
Medford's boys will not have things all their own way as Sydney FC coach, Germany legend Pierre Littbarski, has also done his homework. "I've seen videos of Deportivo Saprissa and there's no doubt that they are a great team. They're very quick, which means we'll need to be on our toes for 90 minutes, especially at the back, but I believe that we've got a chance of winning the game," explained a confident Littbarski.
All the signs point to the German tactical mastermind employing veterans Steve Corica, Dwight Yorke, Kazuyoshi "Kazu" Miura and Sasho Petrovski to drive his team's attacking surges. "We got a lot of experienced players in the squad, and as a team we've made giant strides in a short space of time. In our last two matches we've played really well," he pointed out.
The club from Australia's biggest city are currently second in the Hyundai A-League, having lost just one of their last seven games. But despite their good recent form, they are fully aware of the size of the task ahead.
"It's going to be a difficult game. Sydney FC was only founded a year ago and we're up against a team with a lot of history behind them," stated Australian midfielder Matt Bingley. "They've been playing together for much longer than we have, although Littbarski will know their strengths and weaknesses and the key to taking them on. Whatever happens, we're really proud to have reached this tournament and it's a real honour for the club given its short history," the player added.
Bingley appears pleased with the team's progress and hard work over the last year, which culminated in qualification for the tournament in Japan. "Everybody at the club has really pulled together and worked hard, and you can see the results in the way that things are going so well for us. We have a good blend of youth and experience, and our coach knows just how to make everything click," he said.
For his part, Deportivo Saprissa defender Víctor Cordero feels "anything can happen". Cordero has the greatest respect for the Australians but believes that his own team are a match for any in the competition. "Sydney FC have a very European style and play quality football. They'll be difficult opponents but we've prepared for this in the best possible way," he pointed out.
Japanese fans behind Sydney FC
Medford knows that the Australian team can count on the support of the home fans thanks to the signing of Japanese star Kazu Miura. "Their signing him was a very smart move. They're now going to have the Japanese fans on their side and a top-class player who can give them an extra edge on the pitch," said the coach. However, Saprissa are less concerned about having the crowd on their backs than they are about coping with the cold weather, something that they are not used to over in Costa Rica.
The fans back home have high hopes for Medford's 'Purple Monster', and the coach himself believes his side can compete with the very best. "We've come here looking to win the Cup. Even if we don't make it, we promise to entertain the fans and give a very good account of CONCACAF football."
Confidence levels are also running high in the Australian camp. "We're going to give it everything on Monday. Of course, our short-term goal is to get to the semi-finals and play Liverpool. We're working really hard to get to grips with our playing system, and Kazu's experience and quality will only make us stronger. We're also learning a lot from our coach," revealed former Wolves and Leicester City playmaker Steve Corica.
The scene is set for a cracking game of football as Sydney FC and Deportivo Saprissa battle it out at one of Japan's most modern sports arenas, the 45,000 capacity Toyota Stadium.
With the winner of Monday's game set for a semi-final showdown with reigning UEFA Champions League holders Liverpool on Thursday December 15 at the Yokohama Stadium (19.20 local time), the stakes are high for two teams looking to show the world just what they have got to offer.