Karim Benzema: Al Ittihad won't underestimate Auckland City at Fifa Club World Cup

Frenchman, a five-time winner of the intercontinental championship, says Saudi champions must play with right mentality to overcome New Zealanders

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Al Ittihad captain Karim Benzema says the hosts will “do everything they can” to capture the Fifa Club World Cup, although he warned against underestimating Auckland City in the tournament opener on Tuesday.

The reigning Saudi Arabian champions, appearing in the competition for only a second time, kick off its first staging in the kingdom against the 2022/23 Oceania Champions League winners at their King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah.

Should Ittihad emerge victorious against the 11-time participants from New Zealand, they will set up a quarter-final clash with Egypt’s Al Ahly on Friday. Recent Copa Libertadores winners Fluminense await in the last four, with European champions Manchester City favourites to reach the final from the other side of the draw. City's Asian and Concacaf counterparts, Urawa Red Diamonds and Club Leon, make up the remainder of the tournament.

Speaking on Monday at the pre-match press conference, Benzema, a five-time winner of the Club World Cup with Real Madrid, said: “It’s a new and different experience; everything is expected on the pitch. We will face a strong team, and we are prepared for the challenge.

“The most important thing is to enjoy the tournament with high ambitions. We will approach each match with the mentality that it could be the last, so we will work together to achieve victory.”

Ittihad, who qualified for the tournament having last season secured a first Saudi top-flight title in 14 years, come into the Auckland test following Thursday's disappointing league defeat to Damac.

The result left the Jeddah club fifth in the table after 16 rounds, 16 points off leaders Al Hilal. Last month, Ittihad dismissed manager Nuno Espirito Santo and appointed Argentine Marcelo Gallardo.

Benzema, who signed in June, said: “I am not satisfied with what we have shown in the league, but this is football. My message to the fans is that we will do everything we can to win the Club World Cup, because it is an important tournament for us."

On the expectation to perform on home soil, the Frenchman said: “Pressure is an integral part of life, and positive pressure achieves positive results. I tell my teammates to enjoy every moment, because we don’t know if we will be here in the next edition. We play to enjoy and win; that’s the mentality we play with.

“The tournament will be different, with strong teams. We will do our utmost. We know that we must perform at a higher level. Our team is excellent, and we must deliver victories.”

Of the threat posed by Auckland, whose best Club World Cup finish was third in 2014, Benzema said: “Football is played on the field and not on paper. Tomorrow we will play 11 against 11, and the strong team does not win on paper but on the field.

“We must play with the right mentality, and at that time, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is.”

Gallardo, a runner-up in the competition in 2015 with River Plate, added: “We are fully prepared for the match. Auckland is a team not to be underestimated. I am happy to experience this challenge with high enthusiasm, and we will enter with confidence and determination to win.

“There is no greater motivation than playing in the Club World Cup. We cannot talk about what happened in the past; we will move forward starting from tomorrow’s match. We have the desire, and expectations are very high.

“We must play tomorrow’s match, which is the most important ever and the foundation. We seek to focus only on this match.”

Opposite number Albert Riera, meanwhile, is aware of the size of the task facing the New Zealanders, but said on Monday that they are not in Jeddah simply to make up the numbers.

“For sure we’re the underdogs, we’re aware of that, and being the underdog is an advantage,” Riera said. “But all of the work we’ve put in, all the effort that every player is putting into every training session, is not so we go there and don’t compete and not try to win.

“We’re here to make Auckland City fans proud, to make New Zealand proud, and to try and compete as much as we can.”

Updated: December 12, 2023, 7:47 AM