Teams in focus: the hunters and the hunted

As 2015 nears its conclusion, the footballing calendar still has one major final highlight to offer as the best clubs from the world’s six confederations contest the twelfth edition of the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.

Ahead of the opening match between Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Auckland City, takes a look at the seven teams who have qualified for this intercontinental showdown.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima: Japanese champions full of confidence The host nation’s representatives are coming into the tournament with plenty of momentum, having only booked their place in the competition a few days ago with victory in the J.League Championship. This will be the Japanese side’s second appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup after one previous outing in 2012 where they also began their campaign against their Kiwi rivals. In what could prove to be a good omen, Sanfrecce emerged 1-0 victors from a close-fought encounter before losing to African champions Al Ahly in the quarter-finals. The team from Hiroshima ultimately finished fifth and will be seeking to improve upon that result this time around.

Auckland City: FIFA Club World Cup veterans and surprise package rolled into one No other club has made more appearances at the FIFA Club World Cup than the New Zealand side. As they prepare to make their seventh appearance in the competition, the apparent outsiders will have fond memories of the sensation their third-place finish caused at last year’s tournament in Morocco. “We know we can hold our own against the top teams at this level,” said assistant coach Ivan Vicelich when asked whether his side can spring another surprise. “Our players know what a great responsibility it is to represent not only our club but also the whole of New Zealand and Oceania,” he added.

Club America: The first Mexican team to reach the final? Although Mexican side have always travelled to past editions of the FIFA Club World Cup with high hopes, they have so far been unable to finish higher than the bottom step of the podium. Now Club America, the country’s most successful side, are hoping to break through that ceiling and add global success to their CONCACAF Champions League triumph. “We don’t just want to take part,” explained goalkeeper Moises Munoz, “we want to achieve something great at this Club World Cup and deliver the best performance any Mexican side has ever managed at this tournament.”

Guangzhou Evergrande: Sights set on Barcelona duel Guangzhou have been a class apart at home, winning the last five Chinese championship titles in a row under coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and recently lifting their second AFC Champions League trophy since 2013. Now captain Zheng Zhi and his team-mates are dreaming of a quarter-final victory against Club America followed by a last-four duel with Europe’s representatives. “The whole team are looking forward to the Club World Cup,” said Guangzhou’s skipper and midfield maestro. “We’re completely focused on our first match and optimistic that we can progress to a semi-final against Barcelona.”

TP Mazembe: Memories of 2010 The team from Congo DR etched their names in the competition's history books five years ago, becoming the first African side to reach the final. One of their key figures in that campaign was goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba, who will once again take up his position between the posts in Japan in the hope of being able to re-enact his famous bottom-shuffling goal celebration. When the CAF Champions League winners will face either Sanfrecce Hiroshima or Auckland City in the quarter-finals, they will be counting on striker Mbwana Samata, whose seven goals led his club to continental glory. More of the same from the Tanzanian in Japan will surely make the Ravens fan favourites once again.

River Plate: The crowning achievement of a remarkable year? 2015 has been an incredible year for this historic club from Buenos Aires. With coach Marcelo Gallardo’s team having already won three international titles in the form of the Copa Libertadores, Recopa Sudamericana and Surugu Bank Championship, victory in the FIFA Club World Cup would be the icing on the cake for the dedicated fans accompanying Los Millonarios to the Far East. Although the Argentinians’ form slumped considerably after their Copa Libertadores triumph, the prospect of a successful campaign in Japan seems to have given the team fresh impetus. This is particularly true for midfielder Matias Kranevitter, who is keen to sign off from his current club in style before moving to Atletico Madrid in January. “I dream of playing against a team as great as Barcelona,” he said. “We must try to reach another final. I’ve always dreamed of winning this competition in a River Plate shirt.”

Barcelona: Superstars and title favourites The UEFA Champions League holders, Spanish champions and Copa del Rey winners will arrive in Asia as clear favourites after an exceptional 2015. With the formidable trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar leading their attack, Barcelona have a good chance of winning their third FIFA Club World Cup trophy after previous victories in 2009 and 2011. “We’re flying to Japan with the aim of delivering two strong performances and returning home as champions,” said Javier Mascherano. “It’s a very important tournament for us.” Although the Argentina midfielder could meet his compatriots in the final, he warned that his team cannot afford to be complacent. “Everyone assumes that we and River Plate are the favourites to reach the final, but we’ve got to play our semi-finals first.”

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