Barcelona will aim to take a step closer to putting the perfect cap on a year to remember when taking on Guangzhou Evergrande in the semifinals of the FIFA Club World Cup in Yokohama on Thursday. Luis Enrique’s team gained entry to the tournament thanks to their victory in the Champions League last season, which came as part of landing the second treble in the club’s history. Having also lifted the European Super Cup in August, Barcelona can make it five titles in 2015 with victory in the annual competition between the club champions of each confederation.
Barcelona already know that it will be Argentina’s Copa Libertadores winners River Plate awaiting them in the final on Sunday. But to get there they will have to first get past the winners of Asia’s Champions League. While Barcelona gained automatic entry to the semifinals, Chinese champions Guangzhou have already had to score one victory to get this far. On Sunday in Osaka, they were trailing 1-0 to Mexican giants Club América with 10 minutes remaining before goals from Zheng Long and Paulinho turned the quarterfinal on its head.
The man who netted the late winner, Paulinho, is just one of a number of Brazilians who have been procured at significant expense by Guangzhou in recent years. As well as the former Tottenham midfielder, the squad includes one-time Real Madrid and Milan forward Robinho, as well as Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart. And presiding over them is a coach who knows them well, the man who led Brazil to the World Cup title in 2002, Luiz Felipe Scolari. And, with that pedigree in their corner, Scolari’s counterpart has insisted Barcelona won’t be taking Guangzhou lightly.
“If you look at the standard of players they have, Paulinho who was at Tottenham, we can’t take them lightly,” Enrique said, according to Barcelona’s official website. “Football is full of surprises, just ask Club América.
“We will have to be very careful with their captain [Zheng Zhi], who is an important piece in the team, capable of starting attacks along with the center-backs, directing the midfield and getting into the box. If we look at the semi-finals in the Club World Cup, they have always been tough and we will have to be completely focused to get through. The team are in good shape and with real ambition to do well in Japan.”
Barcelona’s supreme treble-winning form has continued into this season. Although they slipped up in a 2-2 draw with Deportivo La Coruna before leaving for Japan, the Catalan giants are joint-top of La Liga and cruised into the last 16 of the Champions League. So much of their success has been centered on the extraordinary performances of their star forward trio, but Neymar may be prevented from joining Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez in Thursday’s semifinal due to a groin injury.
If he does feature, then Guangzhou’s coach will certainly know what to expect. Scolari coached Neymar in his second spell in charge of Brazil, which culminated in an infamous 7-1 defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals, when the Barcelona star was out injured.
“Neymar’s progressed massively in the last five years -- he is one of the best three players in the world now,” Scolari said, reports Barcelona-based daily Sport. “He would be a decisive player in any team in the world, let alone at Barcelona when there are 25 more [players] with a similar style to him! If he continues fighting as he is, he will be battling to be the best player in the world for many years.”
Date: Thursday, Dec. 17
Kickoff time: 5:30 a.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sport 1