Chelsea begin their quest for the FIFA Club World Cup as they meet Concacaf champions Monterrey in the second semifinal in Yokohama on Thursday. As always, the competition is expected to climax with a final between the champions of Europe and South America. Corinthians have already secured their place in Sunday’s final, but Chelsea’s progress to the same stage can be seen as no foregone conclusion.
The Blues arrived in Japan with their defense of the Champions League having already been ended and just weeks after dismissing the manager that led the team to last season’s surprise triumph, Roberto Di Matteo.
Rafael Benitez took over last month with the side on a poor run of form and, given a hostile reception from his new club’s fans from the off, the former Liverpool boss failed to win in his first three games in charge.
There have been signs of an upturn, though, with Chelsea having won an ultimately meaningless Champions League game 6-1 against Nordsjaelland and followed it up with a 3-1 win at Sunderland.
“Tactically we've tried to be more compact and press high,” said Benitez, according to Chelsea’s official website.
“When you change manager, players want to prove that they should be picked for every game and that's been the situation.
“In the last two games we've played much better, created more chances and that's good for the confidence of the players.”
While the Club World Cup is not viewed in the highest regard by certain people in England, Benitez—who won the trophy with Inter Milan in 2010—is taking the competition very seriously.
“I intend to win, so I will try to use the best team possible to win the first game,” he explained. “After that we will think about the next game. My experience is that you can't leave things for the final because you must win the semi-final.
“The main thing is to play a good game with high tempo, good passing and creating chances.”
A strong lineup could well be needed too to defeat a Monterrey side that are in the competition for the second year in a row. The Mexican outfit have already gone one better than last year, by beating Asian champions Ulsan 3-1 on Sunday.
Argentinean attacking midfielder Cesar Delgado struck two goals in that victory and is likely to have to be at the top of his game to deny Chelsea an expected place in the final. The responsibility on Delgado’s shoulders is only increased by an injury that rules out leading striker Humberto Suazo. The experienced Chile international has already returned home and will miss the rest of the tournament.
Chelsea are still without John Terry and Daniel Sturridge, while Oriol Romeu looks set to miss the rest of the season with a serious knee injury suffered against Sunderland.
D: Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Cole
M: Ramires, Mikel
Moses, Mata, Hazard
D: Perez, Basanta, Mier, Chavez
M: Ayovi, Meza, Cardozo
F: Corona, De Nigris, Delgado
Prediction: Monterrey will enjoy the advantage of not only having experience in the competition, but also of having significantly longer in Japan to acclimatize and recover from jet lag—something with which Chelsea players were said to be suffering.
The loss of Suazo is a significant one for Monterrey, though, and while the game should still be tighter than many anticipate, Chelsea look likely to eventually prevail.
Chelsea 2-1 Monterrey
Where to watch: The FIFA Club World Cup semifinal kicks-off from the International Stadium in Yokohama at 5.30 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel. Alive stream, which you view at your own discretion, will be available here.