Less than a month after taking charge to a chorus of boos and thunderous unrest, Rafael Benitez has the opportunity to win a trophy as Chelsea boss when his side take on Corinthians in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup.
While perhaps unsurprisingly, given the dissention that surrounded the club, Benitez did not get off to the best start on the pitch, results have started to improve. Chelsea have scored 12 goals in three straight victories, notably with the under fire Fernando Torres scoring five times in that run. In their first outing in Japan, the Blues triumphed with a comfortable 3-1 over Concacaf representatives Monterrey in the semifinals on Thursday.
That contest was highlighted by an encouraging performance by David Luiz in the center of midfield. The Brazilian defender, for whom this competition holds considerable importance, is expected to start in the same advanced role against many of his fellow countrymen in the final.
Luiz’s role could be crucial too with Corinthians’ star man arguably being midfielder Paulinho. The Brazil international has been repeatedly linked with a move to Stamford Bridge in recent times and his performance is sure to be highly scrutinized on Sunday.
Corinthians have earned their place in the final following the claiming of the Copa Libertadores earlier this year. Far from the stereotypical unbridled attacking soccer associated with Brazil, Tite’s side have built their success around sound organization and work rate. On route to becoming champions of South America, Corinthians conceded just four goals in 14 matches.
In the semifinals in Japan, the side from Sao Paulo continued that pattern with a 1-0 victory over Al Ahly.
And Benitez is well aware of what his Chelsea team will be coming up against.
“When we talk about Brazilian clubs I have to mention their very good quality,” he said, according to Chelsea’s official website. “They have a very good system, are well orgaorganized and know what to do.
“Corinthians, unlike Sao Paulo, are very defensive, it will be difficult to create opportunities and the match will be very tough.
“They have a lot of good players, not just Paulinho, I like Cassio, the goalkeeper. They are a team who are compact and they have players who can make a difference, so hopefully we can keep them quiet.
“It's hard to find faults, but let's talk about how good they are after tomorrow's match.”
Corinthians also have quality in attack in the form of Peruvian striker Paolo Guerrero. The 28-year-old has previous experience of playing against Chelsea, having scored against the Blues for Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals back in 2005.
Both Chelsea and Corinthians are expected to be unchanged for the final in Yokohama’s International Stadium.
D: Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, Cole
M: Mikel, Luiz
Mata, Oscar, Hazard
D: Alessandro, Chicao, Paulo Andre, Fabio Santos
M: Paulinho, Ralf
Emerson, Douglas, Danilo
Prediction: Chelsea looked impressive last time out in their win against an admittedly poor Monterrey side. If Juan Mata and Eden Hazard in particular can play with the same attacking flair then Corinthians’ defense will be tested to the max.
In contrast, Corinthians did just enough to get the win over Al Ahly, with a particularly passive second-half performance. The underdog tag may suit them, though, and the Brazilian outfit are likely to revel in being able to play on the counter attack.
The key to the match could be in the center of midfield. If Luiz and John Obi Mikel can give disciplined performances to provide a foothold for the creative talents ahead of them then Chelsea should become the first team from England’s capital to be crowned the world’s best.
Chelsea 2-1 Corinthians
Where to watch: The FIFA Club World Cup final will kick-off at 5.30 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel. A live stream, which you view at your own discretion, will be available here.