It is the final that most football fans expected, and indeed wanted, to see. Barcelona, the all-conquering European champions, take on South American kings Santos, whose exciting young stars have been vying with the Catalans for top billing here in Japan. With Neymar, Lionel Messi, Xavi, Ganso and many more sharing the same glittering stage, this promises to be a FIFA Club World Cup finale to remember.
Santos-Barcelona, Yokohama International Stadium, Sunday 18 December 2011, 19.30 (local time)
Both sides come into the final high on confidence, although their semi-final experiences could scarcely have been more different. Santos were given a rough ride by Kashiwa Reysol en route to a 3-1 win in Toyota, and owed their progress to three fleeting moments of inspiration from Neymar, Borges and Danilo. Despite this trio’s dazzling strikes, coach Muricy Ramalho admitted to concern over his side’s defending and ball retention, and is well aware that a much-improved showing will be required against the club game’s premier footballing force.
Barcelona, for their part, will also realise that a much tougher test awaits in the final than the one they faced in their Yokohama semi. Asian champions Al-Sadd were simply no match for Pep Guardiola’s men, with a 4-0 win – which equalled the competition record, set in 2006 by Barça themselves – only hinting at the Catalans’ overall superiority. Yet, comfortable as it was, the victory came at a heavy cost, with David Villa suffering a broken leg and Alexis Sanchez and Javier Mascherano picking up knocks that also could threaten their involvement against Santos.
80 – Since the start of the 2010/11 season, Lionel Messi has averaged exactly a goal a game for Barcelona, with 80 in as many outings. The little Argentinian will make his 295th appearance for the club against Santos, having broken Phillip Cocu’s record for most Barça appearances by a non-Spaniard in the recent 3-1 win over Real Madrid.
“I know I will not be the beast who reduces Barcelona’s ball possession. Nobody can manage this. We have to mark tightly, put pressure on them and gamble on some things happening: a through-ball from Ganso or Elano, or a stroke of genius from Neymar perhaps. Neymar will definitely do something. I have no doubt he will make them suffer,” Muricy Ramalho, Santos coach.
“Our hope and our aim is to win the title again. We know it will be difficult, though, because Santos are a good team with several skilful players. They are also a club with real history and pedigree, of course, as the former team of Pele. We are looking forward to playing against them,” Pep Guardiola, Barcelona coach.