FIFA Club World Cup Preview
Abu Dhabi: Asia will host the FIFA Club World Cup for the third year running when the competition kicks off in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday.
UAE champions Al Jazira get the tournament underway against New Zealand’s Auckland City at the iconic Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.
The 2017 edition of the intercontinental event concludes 10 days later at Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City Stadium, which hosted the 1996 AFC Asian Cup final and will also stage the 2019 final.
In addition to Al Jazira, the Continent is represented by 2017 AFC Champions League winners Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan, who await the winners between Al Jazira and Auckland City in the quarter-finals.
Brazilian side Gremio became the last team to book their spot in the UAE after winning the 2017 Copa Libertadores on Wednesday, while Mexico’s Pachuca and Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca have won the continental competitions in CONCACAF and Africa respectively.
The team to beat, however, are European powerhouse Real Madrid, who will arrive in Abu Dhabi hopeful of becoming the first team in the tournament’s history to successfully defend their title.
Should Los Merengues win the title, that would mean the trophy remains in Spain for a fourth year running after the Madrid club won it in 2014 and 2016 while their arch rivals Barcelona secured the 2015 title.
AFC sides have won medals in six of the 13 editions since the inception of the FIFA Club World Cup, with Urawa the first Asian team to climb the podium in 2007 when they followed their AFC Champions League success with a run to the semi-finals that culminated in a bronze medal.
To find inspiration, Urawa and Al Jazira don’t need to look further than last year’s edition when Japan’s Kashima Antlers progressed all the way to the final and forced the mighty Real Madrid to extra time before eventually losing 4-2 to become the first Asian side to reach the final.
Matching, or even exceeding, the success of their city rivals will be high on Al Jazira’s agenda; Abu Dhabi hosts the FIFA Club World Cup for the third time, and back in 2010 Al Wahda were the first Emirati team to score and win a game in the competition.
Auckland City had ended Al Ahli’s participation early with a 2-0 victory in 2009 but, in the following year, Al Jazira’s domestic rivals overcame Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United 3-0 before losing 4-1 to Korea Republic’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.
Between them, Al Jazira and Urawa bring some of the biggest talents in Asian football to the event; the home side boast in their attack the 2015 AFC Asian Cup top goal scorer Ali Mabkhout who netted 31 times as ‘The Pride of Abu Dhabi’ were crowned league champions last season.
Alongside the Emirati international is Sardor Rashidov, the 26-year-old winger who is one of Uzbekistan’s top players and was part of the Bunyudkor side that reached the 2012 AFC Champions League semi-final before moving to Qatar then to Abu Dhabi last summer.
In turn, Urawa Red Diamonds can lay claim to having one of Asia’s finest midfielders in Yosuke Kashiwagi, who was named the 2017 AFC Champions League’s Most Valuable Player and has the ability to pull the strings from midfield or test goalkeepers from distance with his powerful left foot.
Asian representation is not limited to the two AFC sides, though. Japanese international Keisuke Honda stars for Pachuca while his countryman Takuya Iwata plays his football at Auckland City alongside Korea Republic’s Kim Dae-wook.
For the 11th time out of 14 editions, the FIFA Club World Cup is held in Asia, and it promises to be a spectacle of fine football with high hopes for Asian teams and players.