FIFA Club World Cup 2019 - Will Liverpool triumph?
UEFA Champions League winners Liverpool bid for their first Club World Cup (CWC) title.
Can Jurgen Klopp’s team add another prize to their well-stocked Anfield trophy room?
Seven teams will vie for the CWC crown beginning on 11th December in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Historically only sides from Europe (UEFA) or South America (CONMEBOL) have won this competition and most would expect, and many would hope, UCL champions Liverpool will face Copa Libertadores winners Flamengo in the final.
But first, let’s look at the seven participants.:-
Al-Sadd SC (Qatar)
Are the local entrant and they are considered the best team in Qatar.
Having won multiple Qatari Stars League titles and the Asian Champions League in 1989 and 2011.
They can also boast a victory over fellow participants Esperance in the 2011 edition of the CWC.
In that tournament, they finished a creditable third, behind winners Barcelona and Brazilians’ Santos.
Now coached by Spanish legend Xavi Hernandez the Al-Sadd team is mostly made up of Qatari players with the most highly valued being prolific Algerian striker Baghdad Bounedjah, South Korean Nam Tae-Hee, and wide-man Akram Afif.
They also include 36-year-old ex-Atletico Madrid midfielder Gabi.
Assuming they get past the New Caledonians Al-Sadd will meet Mexicans Monterrey in the second round at their home stadium in Doha.
Hienghene Sport (New Caledonia)
New Caledonia is a French overseas territory located in the southwest Pacific Ocean.
Hienghene Sport qualified for the competition by winning the 2019 Oceania FC (OFC) Champions League title.
Along the way. they eliminated Team Wellington and fellow New Caledonians AS Magenta to become the first team from their region to participate in the CWC.
With just three players having valuations above 100k euros - goalkeeper Rocky Nyikeine, centre-back Roy Kayara and their captain Bertrand Kai the Islanders will cause a major upset if they beat Al-Sadd in their first-round encounter on December 11th.
Nevertheless, it will be an historic, though probably brief, experience for the team and their Tahitian coach Felix Tagawa.
Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia)
Also making their debut will be Asian Champions League (ACL) winners Al-Hilal.
Coached by Romanian Razvan Lucescu the Riyadh-based club has won a record number of domestic titles as well as three ACL championships overall.
Their run to the 2019 ACL final included a defeat of Al-Sadd and a rare West Region final victory over Japanese giants Urawa Red Diamonds.
They can field an array of experienced attacking talent led by Peruvian Andre Carrillo, Italian Sebastian Giovinco, Brazilian Carlos Eduardo, and 34-year-old Bafetimbi Gomis (who was recognised as the Most Valuable Player during the recent ACL campaign)
According to one independent international club ranking, the Saudis are considered the third-best team out of the CWC seven and just above the Mexicans’ Monterrey.
Time will tell if they live up to that assessment.
The Mexicans are the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) title holders and they will be making their fourth appearance at this end-of-year competition.
Their best performance was in 2012 when they reached the semi-finals before losing to Chelsea but they would go on to beat Egyptians Al-Ahly to secure a place on the ‘podium’.
The ‘Rayados’ feature a strong mix of local players and some South American talent, especially from Argentina.
And it was Argentinian centre-back Nicholas Sanchez who would decide the two-legged CCL final against their local rivals Tigres UANL
Two other Argentines feature near the top of their player valuations - midfielder Maximiliano Meza and ex-EPL defender Rogelio Funes Mori.
Other highly-rated stars include Rodolfo Pizarro and Dutch striker Vincent Janssen.
Their experienced coach also hails from Argentina - ex-international striker Antonio Mohamed.
He can boast Mexican Liga MX titles and a Copa Sudamericana (with Independiente) titles as a coach.
Monterrey are likely to play Al-Sadd in Round 2 of the competition and assuming they can get past the Qataris, the ‘Rayados’ will have a high-profile meeting with Liverpool.
When their campaign will probably be diverted towards a 3rd place play-off match.
Esperance de Tunis (Tunisia)
Are the African Champions League (ACL) title-holders.
But only after a tortuous process involving protests by their final opponents Wydad Casablanca and an ultimate decision by the Court for Arbitration in Sport.
It was their fourth such title.
Esperance have also been the most successful club in Tunisian competitions including winning the Tunisian league for the past three years.
However, they do not have a good track record at the CWC having lost to Al-Sadd in 2011 and UAE side Al-Ain in 2018.
And they can expect a test against Al-Hilal in their initial second-round encounter.
If they do prevail they will meet Brazilians Flamengo in the semi-finals.
Under 38-year-old coach Moin Chaabani they can feature locals Anice Badri, Taha Khenissi, Ivorian Founessy Coulibaly, and Algerian Abderaouf Benguit.
But based on transfer market valuations their lineup looks significantly weaker than the likes of Al-Hilal.
So it looks like another early exit for the men from Tunis.
Certainly, for many Cariocas these Rio giants are considered the biggest club in Brazil.
Though they have had their problems in recent times.
Now back on track under Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus the Rubro-Negro edged out River Plate to win the 2019 Copa Libertadores, the South American version of the Champions League.
They will certainly be well-supported over to Qatar for their first appearance in the CWC.
As this competition has much more resonance in South America than in Europe.
So an expected meeting with Liverpool in the final will garner saturation coverage in Brazil and around the region.
And the focus for the Brazilians will be on emulating their Zico-led counterparts from 1981 who beat the Merseysiders in the precursor competition, the Intercontinental Cup.
This 2019 team features Gabriel Barbosa, known as Gabigol, whose late strikes won the Copa Libertadores as well as Uruguayan Georgian de Arrascaeta, Gerson, Everton Ribeiro, and the highly-rated 17-year-old Renier.
In the Libertadores final Flamengo adopted a fairly cautious approach and many thought they were fortunate to win.
Time will tell if their coach chooses the same approach.
We will also see whether the pressure from back home will tell on Jorge Jesus and his team particularly against an all-conquering Liverpool.
And with recent tournaments being won by the Europeans most would forecast a runners-up position this time for Flamengo.
The Merseysiders have never won this competition having lost to Sao Paulo in their previous appearance.
This time many, including the bookmakers, expect them to lift the trophy.
Not least because of their incredible form in the English Premier League where they have won nearly every game and are odds-on for a first EPL crown.
With two players, Egyptian Mohamed Salah and Senegal star Sadio Mane, valued at over £100m and the Ballon d’Or runner-up Virgil van Dijk rated just below that figure they can field an array of talent rated way in excess of their opponents in Qatar.
From the goalkeeper Alisson via their superb attacking full-backs, through the midfield to the world-class attack Liverpool look unstoppable.
Perhaps the only negative factor could be the long flight to the Middle East and the very busy schedule they have to negotiate in December.
But Jurgen Klopp’s team will be very confident of victory.
Having a long history of domestic titles it would be fitting if they could add the CWC to the Anfield trophy room.
Best not to bet against them.
Analysis - John Bethell