CWC Preview: Barcelona – Al-Sadd, Thursday 5:30amET, Fox Soccer/Fox Deportes
The FIFA Club World Cup is upon us. Barça are already in the semis thanks to its seeding as the European Champion (the South American champion, Santos, was also seeded directly into the semifinals). This year’s edition is Barça’s third time in the competition, having lost in the finals in 2006 to Brazilian squad Internacional and won the competition in 2009 by defeating Argentine club Estudiantes in extra time. The goal that won it?
And now the team returns to the Land of the Rising Sun, a place that is steeped in history and currently still working through its recent (has it really been 9 months already?) tsunami and nuclear meltdown. It’s always a hard test and this year doesn’t look to be any different. Guardiola is worried about jetlag and a possible clásico hangover (and who JDS might have just shacked up with?) while the team is probably worried about that 13 hour flight home they’ll have to embark on soon. At least the L’Hospitalet Copa del Rey first leg went according to plan, so there shouldn’t be too hard a return to Spain.
The semifinal is pretty much David vs Goliath, but this time I’m on the side of the big juggernaut. The underdog, the little engine that could of football, is Al-Sadd, a Qatari team that wasn’t even supposed to be in the Asian Champions League, but wound up there thanks to the disqualification of Vietnamese teams and those qualification spots being awarded to Qatar’s 2009-10 runner up. Al-Sadd went through those qualifiers like a bat out of hell, thrashing Syrian outfit Al-Ittihad 5-1 and then Indian club Dempo 2-0 to reach the group stage.
The team then finished first in their 4-team group despite drawing 4 times. The key was that they didn’t lose and that put them through. In case you didn’t know, the Asian Champions League is very similar to the European Champions League’s format and moves on to a round of 16 after the group stage. The difference is that the first knockout round is a one-leg affair. In that first knockout round, Al-Sadd beat Saudi side Al-Shabab 1-0 to move on and face Iranian side Sepahan. Al-Sadd proceeded to lose both quarterfinal matches (0-1 and 2-1), but earned their spot in the semifinal when Sepahan was charged with fielding an ineligible player in their first match; the punishment was a 3-0 forfeit. You can read about the somewhat strange affair here.
The semfinal was also not without its little moment of controversy. While facing off against Korean side Suwon Samsung Bluewings, in the 80th minute, Korean defender Choi Sung-Hwan took a cleat to the face in an accidental maiming while Al-Sadd’s Taher Zakaria, who kicked Choi in the face, got his ankle rolled over by the falling Sung-Hwan. It was all very ugly and looked quite painful for both players, with Sung-Hwan coming out the worse for wear. Suwon put the ball out of play, but on the restart, instead of sending it back to the Bluewings, Al-Sadd’s Ivorian international Abdoul Kader Keita looped the ball over the top to a racing Mamadou Niang who was in on goal alone and deftly rounded the keeper to make it 2-0. The Korean reaction was furious. Things quickly spilled over into a fight as several substitutes got into it with players and coaches and probably ball boys. You can watch it here. Given that Suwon won the second leg 1-0 and would have gone to extra time were it not for that goal probably makes things all the harder to stomach for fans of that Korean team.
It’s not that they’re “dirty” players or “cheaters”, though–clearly the Suwon players, being down 1-0 in the 80th minute, put the ball back into the penalty area in an attempt to score despite two players being on the ground and then only put it out for a throw in once they were no longer in a threatening position. It’s hard to argue that they should have sent it calmly back, but it’s also hard to argue that they’re not dicks for having failed to do so. Whatever, the point is that they’re willing to go and get themselves a goal if it helps their cause, for right or wrong. Morality is relative and often called upon by those who have some sort of a pony in a thoroughbred race.
As usual, I digress. Back to the real topic. The Asian CL final a 2-2 affair between Al-Sadd and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors that obviously ended in a penalty shootout. Al-Sadd won 4-2 and earned their second continental title. Their first was the old Asian Club Championship in 1989. So now they’re champions and are currently 5th in the Qatari league after 8 matches (they have a game in hand).
Let’s talk a bit of conspiracy theory, though, because, well, that is some fun nonsense sometimes. Their chairman is none other than Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who you’ll remember was the chair of the Qatar2022 bid, which had one Josep Guardiola on their payroll as a spokesman throughout the bidding process. Obviously there’s some serious conflict of interest and if Barça loses, it is because al Thani is the son of the other al Thani out there and [dramatic music] his second wife, the one who heads the Qatar Foundation. That would be Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned if you don’t care to Google.
So yeah, Al-Sadd has some financial ties to Barcelona, but that, I don’t suppose, is particularly odd given today’s global economy and the way that money sweeps all before it. I’m going to guess, without having done any research whatsoever, that the same sort of weird connect-the-dots could be made with Santos. I don’t believe this means anything, not with Guardiola at the helm along with his burning desire for more trophies. He’s like some sort of obsessed crazy man when it comes to trophies. I imagine his wife gives him trophies: “If you take the little one to school better than Mourinho takes his kid to school, you can have a giant piece of metal that I found in the street. Jose is winning right now so get to it.” Then I imagine that Guardiola plans the route to school with ever-changing, always-exacting criteria. “Yesterday Avenida Blah Blah had a traffic rate of 33.2 cars per minute. Calle Yadda Yadda had only 33.194. We’ll be taking Calle Yadda Yadda at 38kph so that we don’t get behind the school bus that turns left onto…” You get the idea.
Obviously, how Barça lineup and what tactics they use is determined by how Al-Sadd plays normally. Fortunately, I just happen to be one of the preeminent scholars of the Qatari league and know exactly what they bring to the table. Rejoice! I’ve even compiled it into a very handy youtube clip so you don’t have to read.
Very well, then. Now that we’ve covered all of that, what about their best players? Throughout the Asian CL, they didn’t have a single goal scorer with more than 3 goals to his name. Compare that to Jeonbuck, who had the top two scorers on their team (Lee Dong-Gook with 9 and Eninho with 7) and it becomes a question of how effective their defense was rather than how powerful their offense. They allowed 11 goals throughout the tournament proper (as in, not counting qualifying rounds) and scored 16. That’s not the usual hallmark of a champion (to use Jeonbuck again, they went 33GF and 12GA including the final), but it was enough and they’ll look to do the same to Barça. Overlooking them would be a ridiculous mistake and one that Guardiola is unlikely to make, no matter how much the team wants to play Santos.
Predicted Lineup: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Villa, Messi.
I think we roll into them with the big guns and let the shotpower do the talking. Guardiola will want to keep the clásico momentum going rather than letting the team relax, so it’ll be press first and ask questions later. As for the final result…
Official Prediction: Barça 3 – 0 Al-Sadd. I’m overconfident and I know it. You can lambaste me for it when the match is really tough and we have a hard time with them, but I went relatively pessimistic for the clásico and now I can’t help but feel like we’re superior to every team on earth by some margin. That Al-Sadd has done little (other than, you know, win) to dispel those thoughts is another reason for the prediction.
Since I haven’t actually mentioned it: Al-Sadd qualified for the semis with a 2-1 victory over Tunisian side Espérance, which shouldn’t be confused with Tunisian side, uh, Espérance. One is from Tunis and the other from Zarzis. How hard is that to understand…says the guy who totally read up on the one from Zarzis and was super confused for like 3 minutes.
Anyway, here’s hoping that the following scene is repeated on Sunday: