Xabi Alonso: This tournament is a tremendous challenge
Liverpool arrive in Japan in buoyant mood after winning Group C of the UEFA Champions League last Tuesday. The reigning European champions held Jose Mourinho's powerful Chelsea side scoreless at Stamford Bridge, thereby relegating them to second place in the group. Moreover, Liverpool have put together a string of seven straight wins in the Premier League, and are now up to second 12 points behind the Blues.
Now the Reds are about to undertake another exciting challenge: representing Europe at the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005. With just days to go before the big kick-off, FIFA.com caught up with the club's midfielder Xabi Alonso and found him enthusiastic about the task ahead.
"It's always great when you get a chance to travel to a country like Japan, even more so when you're going there to compete with the other continental champions. This will be a major challenge for us, and victory would represent a very significant achievement for Liverpool," confesses the Spaniard.
Alonso's short career has already featured a host of landmark opportunities, none of which the player has allowed to slip by. He made his Primera Liga debut in 1999 with Real Sociedad before being loaned out for six months to SD Eibar. On returning to the club, Alonso quickly established himself as one of the key figures in the side. His stock continued to rise under new coach Raynald Denoueix, culminating in his starring role in helping the club to second place in the league behind Real Madrid in 2002/2003.
The central midfielder's rapid progress was soon raising eyebrows, ultimately leading to his inclusion in the Spanish squad for Euro 2004 in Portugal. Although it was a tournament to forget for Spain, Liverpool were sufficiently impressed to pay Real Sociedad's reported €16 million asking price to bring Alonso to Anfield. The Basque-born player wasted no time settling in his new environment and was voted best new signing by the fans in his first year in the Premier League. On top of that, he would finish the season with a UEFA Champions League medal, all before turning 24.
"The feeling when we lifted the trophy was indescribable. It was hugely important for both the city and the club, which had been waiting for that moment for 20 years," the player remarks.
Alongside the best teams in the world
The FIFA Club World Championship will no doubt provide Liverpool with another opportunity to enthral their legions of fans. "Going to Japan as European champions is a source of pride, and of course we'll be trying to do our very best there," the player says with a smile. However, Alonso is not entirely comfortable with Liverpool's tag of favourites. "We know we're regarded as pre-tournament favourites, but that's something we have to demonstrate on the pitch."
Deportivo Saprissa will be awaiting them in their semi-final at the Yokohama Stadium. "We have a lot of games this season, although we adhere to a strict timetable that allows us to properly prepare for every competition. I just hope that jet lag doesn't affect us," says Alonso.
In spite of these concerns, the player says that the spirit of optimism in the Reds' dressing room is palpable. "We have a lot of confidence and know that we can do well in this championship," assures Alonso. "Compared to last year we're a better side. We have a more complete squad and more possibilities. That's why, even with our hectic match schedule, I feel we're acquitting ourselves very well."
The Liverpool quintet
Along with Luis García, Xabi Alonso is the most senior of the five Spanish players in the current Liverpool squad, which boasts an incredible ten different nationalities. With another compatriot, Rafael Benítez, at the helm, the "Spanish Five" feel right at home in Liverpool.
"I've settled in well in the city. I'm happy and I feel better every season," says the Basque native who inherited his passion for the game from his father Miguel Ángel 'Perico' Alonso, who also played for Real Sociedad. In spite of winning two La Liga titles and representing his country 20 times, Alonso Snr never had the chance to ply his trade overseas. "I think that most foreign players, including us Spanish, who come to the Premiership from other leagues find it very tough. It's a much more physical environment here and there's more contact."
Competing in Japan will doubtless benefit this bourgeoning playmaker, who, with the injury to Barcelona's Xavi, could well be asked to orchestrate Spain's midfield at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. For now though, Xabi Alonso is content to take things slowly and remains utterly focused on helping Liverpool to further glory by winning the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup at the Yokohama Stadium on 18 December.