Europe’s finest club side will set off for the Far East after this weekend, hopeful that a journey across eight time zones – and what could be two fixtures of high prestige and a lot of pressure – will not derail their ambitions to make history in 2016.
It is Club World Cup time, and Barcelona, who meet Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday looking to secure their position at the top of the Primera Liga before their recess from domestic competition, are favourites to add a fifth major title to their collection from a stunning 2015.
Stamina as much as silverware are at issue for the European champions, whose momentum has slowed in the past week with a 1-1 draw at Valencia that cut their lead over Atletico Madrid at the top of the Spanish table, and then a less relevant 1-1 draw at Bayer Leverkusen in the Uefa Champions League group they had already won comfortably.
A long trip to Tokyo, the host city for Fifa’s showpiece club event, has disruptive potential, this year above all.
In 2013 and 2014, the event took place at Morocco, which, a skip across the Mediterranean, seemed convenient to last year’s winners Real Madrid.
The two years prior to that, when UAE welcomed the champions of each continent, was also less of a long-haul, jet-lag inducing expedition for the European champions, which Barcelona were when they triumphed in 2009.
There is also an adjustment to the league calendar that has shortened its winter break.
Barca will arrive home, if they reach next Sunday’s final on December 21, and will be back in league action five days after Christmas.
Normally players employed in Spain’s top flight can look forward to two weeks off.
Barca manager Luis Enrique has detected no alarming symptoms of fatigue so far in a season in which the defence of the European title, the Spanish championship and the Copa del Rey are proceeding smoothly, but he knows the threat is there.
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“The statistics show there are players who have already played more minutes than at the same stage last year,” he said, “but that was the script we were handed.
“In January, with reinforcements coming in, we should be able to rest some players a bit more.”
Some of those reinforcements have been straining at an invisible leash. Barca’s heavy workload – their August fixture list also included had an additional two legs of the Spanish Cup, which they lost to Athletic Bilbao, and a 120-minute Uefa Super Cup, where they beat Sevilla in distant Georgia – has hardly been eased by the registration ban imposed by Fifa as punishment for irregularities in the signing of players under the age of 18.
Barcelona have a pair of high-energy recruits already under contract in Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan, but they are unable to make their competitive debuts for the club they joined four months ago.
In Tokyo, Barcelona will be chasing a third Club World Cup prize, aiming to overtake Corinthians of Brazil with the most wins in the 12-year history of the tournament.
Europe’s representatives tend to be favourites, but Barcelona will encounter some resonant names on the rest of the cast list.
They may meet Guangzhou Evergrande in Thursday’s semi-final, which would mean Luis Enrique coming up against Luiz Felipe Scolari, the man who Barcelona very nearly appointed as manager a decade ago.
Scolari will call on Robinho, once the world’s most coveted teenager and a veteran of a number of clashes with Barca during his career with Real Madrid.
If the final is to bring together the holders of the Copa Libertadores, Argentina’s River Plate, and Barcelona, that will be a nostalgic occasion for River’s Javier Saviola.
The 34-year-old forward was the world’s most expensive teenager when he joined Barcelona in 2001. Luis Enrique became his teammate then and for the next three years.
South America versus Europe is the most common final, but it can no longer be assumed that these two continents duke it out for pre-eminence.
Two of the last four silver-medallists have come from Africa. TP Mazembe finished second in 2010 and are back for this edition.
PLAYER TO WATCH IN EUROPE THIS WEEKEND - JAVIER HERNANDEZ of BAYER LEVERKUSEN
Hernandez was discarded by Manchester United and Real Madrid in the past six months, but the Mexican striker is chasing his 13th goal in 12 matches for Bayer Leverkusen.
“Chicharito”, as he is best known, especially to his Mexican compatriots – it means “Little Pea” – is in precisely the sort of goalscoring form former club United could use right now. United, blunt up front in the Premier League, sold the striker to Leverkusen for a little over €10 million (Dh40m) in the summer, ending a relationship that began just after the 2010 World Cup and was worth a goal every 140 minutes for United.
That looks a fine record in hindsight and an even better one when you consider Hernandez’s role at United was very often to be used as a second-half substitute. That would also be the case for him at Madrid, where United loaned him out for 2014/15. In Spain, he arrived in a new league and at a new club, but showed characteristic penalty-box reliability: He scored goals at a very similar rate as he had at United.
Yet his nine goals for Madrid, in a campaign in which he made 12 starts, were not enough to persuade the Spanish club to keep him. Not while Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Isco and Jese were making up the long queue for striking roles. So he accepted the challenge of the Bundesliga, and a Leverkusen side with an attacking bent. They face Borussia Monchengladbach today.
Chicharito is often called an “instinctive” finisher and it maybe something to do with the football genes. His father is Javier Hernandez Gutierrez, a striker who represented Mexico in the 1980s and was known as “Chicharo” – or the Pea – for his diminutive stature and his striking green eyes. Hernandez’s grandfather was also an international: Tomas Balcazar scored for Mexico at the 1954 World Cup.
EUROPE’s GAME OF THE WEEK - Udinese v Juventus, Sunday
Inter Milan’s title rivals will undergo a stern test of their champion credentials this weekend as the four clubs beneath the leaders go head to head in Serie A.
Third-placed Napoli host fourth-spotted Roma tomorrow before second-place Fiorentina visit fifth-placed Juventus. Inter, who travel to Udinese today, are one point clear of Fiorentina at the top but could capitalise as their challengers battle each other on the penultimate weekend before the winter break.
Champions Juventus are still playing catch-up after a slow start to the season, which has already seen Massimiliano Allegri’s side lose to Roma and Napoli.
Despite a midweek loss to Sevilla in the Uefa Champions League, Juve have found their stride domestically, winning five games on the bounce to close the gap on their rivals.
Fiorentina, unbeaten in nine games, must also stop Juan Cuadrado, the winger set to play his first competitive match against his former club. Cuadrado left Fiorentina for Chelsea in February but failed to make an impact in England and is on loan at Turin.
Hot on Fiorentina’s heels are Napoli, just one point behind in third, and hoping to take advantage of a Roma side whose league form has crumbled in recent weeks. Winless in five, Roma’s 6-1 hammering at the hands of Barcelona in the Champions League a fortnight ago appears to have affected the squad’s morale, prompting two draws and a defeat in the three games since.
Napoli would have moved top of the table last weekend had they not slipped to a 3-2 loss at Bologna, ending the club’s 18-match unbeaten run.
Gonzalo Higuain scored both of Napoli’s goals, and the striker can break the club record belonging to fellow Argentine Diego Maradona this weekend, if he nets in his ninth consecutive home match.
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