Battle of the best

This year’s FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, which will kick off on Wednesday, is the sixth edition of the prestigious global tournament since its inception in 2000. The inaugural event took place in Brazil, with Japan doing duty as hosts for the last four years. Now, though, the tournament is paying a first visit to the United Arab Emirates, where the top teams from each of FIFA’s member confederations will contest the title of best club in the world.

European teams on the rise Brazilian sides Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Internacional were the first three winners of the FIFA Club World Cup, but the South American monopoly on the trophy ended in 2007, when AC Milan defeated Boca Juniors in the final, before Manchester United overcame Ecuadorian hopefuls Liga de Quito to keep the trophy in European hands last year.

The UEFA representatives are widely regarded as favourites this time round, too. Barcelona not only ran away with the Spanish league title, but Pep Guardiola’s men also won friends and admirers with a series of scintillating displays in the UEFA Champions League, ultimately claiming the continental crown with a 2-0 victory over holders Manchester United in the final.

The famous Catalan club has won almost everything there is to win in an illustrious history stretching back over a century, with one glaring omission: the FIFA Club World Cup. Lionel Messi and Co will be even more determined to repair that oversight, no doubt motivated by their club’s defeat by Inter in the 2006 decider.

Argentinian heavyweights Estudiantes, the lead candidates to meet Barcelona in this year's final, have no intention of letting the Spaniards have things all their own way. The South Americans contested the Intercontinental Cup, the forerunner of the FIFA Club World Cup, on three occasions. They beat Manchester United to claim the honours in 1968, but AC Milan and Rotterdam giants Feyenoord proved too strong in the succeeding finals.

After a 39-year gap, Juan Sebastian Veron led his men to renewed Copa Libertadores glory. A two-legged triumph over Belo Horizonte side Cruzeiro earned the powerful Argentinian outfit a tilt at the world title.

Mexicans and Koreans keen to impress The fact that the favourites come from Europe and South America surprises no-one, but many experts feel Atlante and Pohang Steelers are as well-placed as any previous underdogs to shake up the established order this year. The Potros de Hierro (Iron Colts) from Mexico are determined to cause a stir both in the stands and on the field at the twin venues for the tournament, the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium and Zayed Sports City Stadium.

Pohang Steelers, who claimed AFC Champions League glory at the expense of Saudi Arabian challengers Al Ittihad, are in equally upbeat mood ahead of the global match-up. Coach Sergio Farias has been at the South Koreans’ helm for more than five years, and is keen to make a dash in the UAE after hitting the headlines at continental level.

But before Pohang Steelers can pursue their dream of becoming the first Asian side to contest the FIFA Club World Cup Final, Farias and his team will have to deal with the threat posed by DR Congo challengers TP Mazembe-Englebert. The men representing the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ host continent, fresh from winning their first African Cup of Champion Clubs/CAF Champions League in more than four decades, are sure to push the Koreans all the way.

The seven-strong starting field is completed by New Zealand side FC Auckland and host club Al Ahli, reigning UAE champions. The pair clash on 9 December in the opening match, with the winners meeting Atlante to determine who will face Barcelona in the semi-finals. In the other half of the draw, Mazembe and Pohang contest the right to take on Estudiantes in the last four.