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The Club World Cup is a big deal in Brazil, where, for all its global dimension, the competition is a continuation of local rivalries by other means.
The South American representatives this year are Palmeiras, from the sprawling city of Sao Paulo. The other big teams from the city already have a world title to their name. Sao Paulo won the first version of the current format back in 2005, Corinthians won a pioneer version in 2000 and were the last South American winners in 2012, and Santos, a port city an hour down the road, can claim the old intercontinental title, overcoming the champions of Europe in home and away battles in 1962 and 1963.
Palmeiras claim similar status for an international tournament they won in 1951. But, at least as far as their rivals are concerned, it does not count. But the arguments will all be over if Palmeiras emerge victorious from this month’s Club World Cup. No one would be able to deny that Palmeiras, the traditional team of Sao Paulo’s Italian community, can consider themselves world champions.
It is, though, a big “if.”
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Europe has exerted a stranglehold on the trophy despite — to the fury and occasional disbelief of the South Americans — giving the whole thing very little importance. The Europeans often act as if the Club World Cup is much more of an inconvenience than an opportunity. And yet the three South American — all Brazilian — triumphs under the current format date back over a decade ago. The European champions have always reached the final. On five occasions the South American champions have failed to make it through the semifinal — the last time happening a year ago, to Palmeiras.
And then it got even worse. Not only did Palmeiras lose their semifinal, to Tigres of Mexico, but they were also beaten in the play off for third place, going down on penalties after a 0-0 draw with African champions Al Ahly of Egypt– who they now meet again in Tuesday’s semifinal.
Palmeiras are the first team in 20 years to retain their Copa Libertadores crown. But this triumph also exposes them to risk: They could become the first South American side to fail twice to make it to the Club World Cup final. Supporters of Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Santos are anxiously awaiting another humiliation. Twelve months ago Palmeiras were so stale, so devoid of ideas that they failed even to threaten a goal in their two games. Can they have become so much better in just one year?
There are grounds for hope. The experience of last year is clearly a benefit, and surly Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira would seem to have a team with a wider attacking repertoire than that of a year ago.
The strong point remains the tight defensive unit, where excellent goalkeeper Weverton is well protected by the centre-back duo of Luan and Paraguay’s Gustavo Gomez, the key organiser at the back. In the middle of the field, the dynamic left-footed Danilo has grown into a confident and complete midfielder who might have moved to Europe in January had it not been for this competition. Another left-footer, attacking midfielder Raphael Veiga finished last year in the form of his life. Little Rony, signed as a winger, has turned into a waspish, dangerous central striker. And since last year’s Club World Cup Palmeiras have welcomed back club idol Dudu, who brings extra subtlety to the attack.
There are other reasons to believe. The final would almost certainly be against Chelsea — surely not the strongest of recent European champions, struggling for form, with more than one eye on a Champions League game later this month and with coach Thomas Tuchel confessing that his players are tired. There could be deficiencies there for Palmeiras to exploit.
But first, of course, come Al Alhy. And here, too, the calendar has done Palmeiras a favour. The Egyptians have their best players on duty with the national team in the Africa Cup of Nations. Club coach Pitso Mosimane has some decisions to take. Can he get his players up from Cameroon to Abu Dhabi in time for Tuesday’s game? What kind of physical condition will they be in? Should he keep faith with the line up that beat Monterrey of Mexico on Saturday, or would it be wiser to bring in the reinforcements?
Whatever he chooses, Palmeiras will start as favourites. But the Brazilians may be disappointed not to be facing Monterrey. The Mexicans left themselves open to the impressive Egyptian counter-attack, which is quick and direct with well worked diagonal switches of play to stretch the opposing defence. Monterrey would surely have suited Palmeiras, who, like Al Alhy, are most comfortable as a low risk, counter-attacking team.
Al Alhy present Palmeiras with a very different challenge: The Brazilians will be expected to take the initiative. They can do it. In their Libertadores campaign they won 5-0 at home to Independiente del Valle of Ecuador and 6-0 against Universitario of Peru. Both times the opposing defence found it impossible to cope with their attacking speed. But if there is no early goal on Tuesday then Palmeiras will have to show patience and guile — Al Alhy would love them to get desperate and over-commit — leaving space for one of their rapid breaks. Ferreira, then, will surely send out Dudu to stretch the pitch wide on the right, will hope to see Rony running in between the Egyptian defenders, and will expect Veiga and Gustavo Scarpa to shoot from range against a deep-lying backline. Midfielders Danilo and Ze Rafael will have to keep their discipline, ensuring that the Palmeiras defence is not left exposed.
The stakes are high. Over the next few days Palmeiras will either win two games, come back as world champions and force rival fans into a temporary silence. Or they can expect to be on the wrong end of a prolonged goading session. Triumph and disaster have seldom been so close together.