The Club World Cup is Barcelona's to lose.
After all, the perennial Spanish power is considered to be the best team in the world and boast what many claim to be the best player in the world -- the fabulous Lionel Messi -- although there are skeptics in Brazil.
“We're under an obligation to win," he recently told a FIFA.com. “The Club World Cup is a highly prestigious tournament, and we want to win it."
So does Santos (Brazil), Monterrey (Mexico), Esperance (Tunisia), Al-Sadd (Qatar), Auckland City (Oceania) and Kashiwa Reysol AFC (Japan). They would love to take the final victory lap as well.
But let's face it, Barcelona is the overwhelming favorite to capture its second Club World Cup championship since 2009 and third in the past six years. When Barca won two years ago, it defeated Estudiantes in extra-time in the final, 2-1. And who scored the winning goal? One Lionel Messi, quite appropriately.
The competition kicks off with a special playoff match between Kashiwa Reysol (Japan) and Auckland City (New Zealand) on Thursday. The quarterfinals will follow on Sunday, followed by the Dec. 14-15 semifinals and the championship game on Dec. 18.
Barca, representing Europe, finds itself sitting in the catbird seat, getting a bye all the way to the semifinals. So the La Liga superpower needs to win only twice to dance around with the trophy at Yokohama International Stadium in Yokohama Stadium in Yokohama, Japan a week from Sunday.
While Messi can be a one-man highlight reel, he is far from a one-man show. He certainly plays a vital role with his moves, side-to-side dancing to confuse opponents and his lethal marksmanship. After all, who sets up the great one on goals and who defends on those rare occasions when Barcelona doesn't possess the ball?
Those seasoned and competition hardened players include the multi-talented midfielder Xavi, Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal in the World Cup final for Spain in extra-time last year, David Villa, who found the back of the net in earlier matches for Spain in South Africa and Argentine veteran midfielder Javier Mascheriano.
Prior worrying about this world championship Barcelona has this game to concern itself with before the team flies to Japan, taking on this little team named Real Madrid an El Clásico in Barcelona on Saturday.
Copa Libertadores champion Santos (South America) is regarded as Barcelona's biggest obstacle to another CWC title, and for good reason. The Brazilian club boasts one of the most talented players on the planet in 19-year-old Neymar.
In fact, the Brazilian media is making a big deal of the potential confrontation between two outstanding performers.
Even the great Pelé chimed in with his opinion, and it should not be surprising who he backed.
“Comparing the two individually, I think Neymar is much better, more complete,” he said recently. “Messi is great, but he relies a lot on his teammates. That is why he does so well for Barcelona, but struggles playing for Argentina. Neymar plays well for Santos and for Brazil.”
While Neymar is a promising talent and can fill the net, the 24-year-old Messi has been around the block and then some, having participated in two World Cups, winning five La Liga crowns and three UEFA Champions League titles and helping Argentina to an Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. And oh yes, Messi is a finalist along with Xavi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo for Ballon d’Or as the FIFA world player of the year.
What has Neymar accomplished? Well, he has scored eight times in 15 games for Brazil. He has scored something like 40 goals in 85 matches for his club. He has a huge upside on his potential, but he hasn't accomplished anything, at least not yet. Moreover, Neymar, who has attracted much interest in many top European clubs, must play across the Atlantic to truly establish himself as one of the best players in the world.
We'll see how they fare and if their respective teams can reach the ultimate stage on Dec. 18.
Of course, before even planning for Barca, Santos must win its semifinal match first. Its foe will come from the quarterfinal encounter between Monterrey and the Kashiwa Reysol-Auckland City winner.
Santos players certainly are not taking their potential opposition lightly.
"The Mexicans are always the third force in the Club World Cup, behind the teams from Europe and South America," Santos defender Leo told Brazilian magazine Lance last month. "That is why I don't think we had much luck to draw Monterrey in the semifinal."
"But that doesn't mean that our men do not have the talent to make it to the final."
Monterrey, which earned its right to represent CONCACAF by capturing the CONCACAF Champions League crown with a thrilling and dramatic second-leg win over Real Salt Lake (United States) last April. Los Rayados are led by striker Humberto Suazo, one of their CONCACAF Champions League goal-scoring heroes, Mexican international forward Aldo de Nigris and Cesar Delgado.
Over the past decade, not many CONCACAF teams have fared well. In fact, no CONCACAF team has reached the final, although Saprissa (Costa Rica) finished third in 2005 and Pachuca (Mexico) took fourth place in 2008.
Los Rayados, who outlasted Real Salt Lake (Major League Soccer, United States) in the CCL, represents the confederation. The Mexican team is a good, solid side, but it could meet its match and then some in this tournament.
Last year's tournament reminded everyone -- media, fans and other interested observers -- not to take a minnow team lightly. TP Mazembe (Congo) stunned Pachuca in the quarterfinals, 1-0, and Internacional (Brazil) in the semifinals, 2-0, to reach the final. There, the African side returned to reality in a 3-0 defeat to Inter (Italy).
"Nothing is impossible," said Ghana defender Harrison Afful, whose Tunisian team Esperance must overcome Al Sadd in a quarterfinal before meeting Barcelona in Yokohama on Dec. 18.
So, sometimes even a minnow or two can break through and make some history.
While TP Mazembe opened eyes last year, the smaller countries still must be considered outsiders.
If the stars align, the final should pit Barcelona and Santos and the confrontation Pele and probably the rest of the world will want to see: the established Messi vs. the up-and-coming Neymar.
Can't think of a better present to the soccer world a week before Christmas.
Michael Lewis, who has covered international soccer for more than three decades, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.
Michael Lewis, who has written about soccer for four decades, is the only journalist who has covered every MLS Cup. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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