Boys from Brazil ready to conquer Japan
Sao Paulo begin their assault on the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005 against Saudi Arabian side Al Ittihad at the National Stadium in Tokyo this Wednesday. The Brazilians, two-time winners of the Intercontinental Cup (1992 and 1993), arrive in Japan as favourites and are determined to reach the summit of world football once again.
Coach Paulo Autuori confessed a combination of "history and tradition" made them favourites, but admitted to being surprised at how well semi-final opponents Al Ittihad had performed in their opening game. "I was expecting a win for Al Ahly, but they (Al Ittihad) put in some great individual performances. They showed themselves to be very well drilled and had the better organisation in midfield. I believe that they could have done even better (in their opening game) because they have a lot of very talented players," he added.
Sao Paulo arrived in Japan eight days ago to give themselves sufficient time to get acclimatised to the cold temperatures and different time zone. As they go in search of a third title in the Land of the Rising Sun, Autuori's men will be hoping to atone for a disappointing 11th place finish in the recent Brazilian championship.
Victory would have particular poignancy for some of the Sao Paulo players. Cicinho, for one, feels it would be the perfect way to bid farewell to his beloved fans before joining Real Madrid in January. "I want to give something back to the fans after all the support both they and the club have given me over the years. The team is feeling strong and motivated, but we mustn't forget that all our opponents will be tough."
Showing respect for one's opponents whilst believing in one's own strengths seems to be the approach then, ahead of the big game. Another echoing this sentiment is Junior, for whom the tournament is an opportunity to erase a painful memory: "I was destined to come back here to Japan. I played here in 1999 for Palmeiras when we lost to Manchester United in the final of the Intercontinental Cup. We gave them too much respect and were a bit cowed during the game." Nonetheless, the player has sweeter memories of Japan at international level after helping Brazil win the FIFA World Cup™ there in 2002.
The Paulista side will also be able to count on several experienced players, like talismanic goalscoring keeper Rogerio Ceni. Club captain Ceni, as well as being a talented custodian, is a supremely gifted striker of the dead ball, as his 20 goals this season graphically illustrate. The veteran keeper was on the bench back in 1993 when the club won the second of their titles in Japan, and today he is Sao Paulo's undisputed No. 1.
Alongside the seasoned pros are a talented crop of youngsters, including the aforementioned Cicinho and Denilson, a precocious 17-year-old who is being hailed as the club's latest wonderkid.
Al Ittihad come in to their semi-final clash buoyed with optimism after seeing off first-round opponents Al Ahly, who had previously gone 55 games unbeaten. Coach Anghel Iordanescu was delighted after their opening game and, in spite of the knocks picked up by several of his players, is now very eager to take on Sao Paulo. "We have five players out and not many options if the guys are exhausted or injured. Fortunately, this win will give us lots of confidence, even if it's always difficult to take on a Brazilian side."
However, the Romanian should be able to count on Cameroon's Joseph-Desire Job, who has served his one-match suspension after being sent off in the final of the AFC Champions League, and Osama Al Harbi.
Victory in the 'Arab derby' boosted morale in the Al Ittihad squad, who must now try to counter Sao Paulo's "jogo bonito" (beautiful football). Goalkeeper Mebrouk Zaid was at his acrobatic best against Al Ahly and will once more be crucial to his team's success, as will Al Ittihad's rearguard, which Hamad Al Montashari marshalled so authoritatively on Sunday. All things considered, the match looks far from an easy task for Amoroso and his striking partners from Sao Paulo.
With the confidence that comes from a strong defence, Al Ittihad will be hoping to keep their discipline and shape in midfield, and put their faith in the speed and dexterity of their front men. The Asian champions will doubtless have to make full use of their lightning fast striker Kallon on the break if they are going to make Sunday's final and leave their illustrious Brazilian rivals out in the cold.