Many in England, and much of Europe, will be expecting Chelsea to win on Sunday. They are after all, European, and they always win, don’t they? Manchester United, Inter and AC Milan and Barcelona have won the last five Club World Cups between them.
In Corinthians, the Copa Libertadores champions, Chelsea are preparing to take on possibly South America’s most European team. The São Paulo giants play with an organised 4-2-3-1 system in which Tite is constantly making tactical alterations to adapt to his opponents, pressing them hard, unusually for Brazilian teams. In Paulinho, he has a midfielder who spent time in Europe, before returning to South America, but clearly picked up a thing or two along the way. His all round abilities are in some ways reminiscent of Frank Lampard at his best, and that is what has attracted Chelsea, among other sides, to scout Paulinho recently. He forms a midfield which is exceptionally hard working with the experienced Ralf.
Chelsea will also likely face Romarinho, as Tite looks to, as he puts it, use a number of fast players to counter what he sees as Chelsea’s physical and height advantage. Romarinho, not to be confused with Romário’s son of the same name who plays for Vasco de Gama, is another bright young Brazilian prospect, who rose to the occasion to score in the final of the Copa Libertadores. And during the Libertadores, Corinthians illustrated their sturdy back line by conceding just four goals as they became the first team to win the competition without losing a game since 1978.
Corinthians also arrived in Japan backed by thousands and thousands of their enthusiastic fans. Last year Santos were thrashed 4-0 by Barcelona, the gulf plain for the world to see. But then, Barcelona have outplayed all of the best European teams of recent years to a similar extent, from Chelsea to Real Madrid. It is hard to claim that Chelsea are on a similar level. Conversely, this Corinthians team look stronger than recent South American representatives, such as LDU Quito, Internacional and Boca Juniors. Twelve years ago Mexican side Necaxa beat a full strength Real Madrid, and six years later Internacional under Abel Braga overcame Frank Riijkard’s Barcelona, underlining the importance of not underrating the opposition from across the Atlantic.
Of course Chelsea have plenty going for them as well. Fernando Torres is finally scoring and looking confident again, and he is forming a potent partnership with Juan Mata just behind. Oscar, a former São Paulo player, will relish taking on their fierce rivals, and Ramires’ energy and dynamism is critical to much of the Londoners’ play. Rafa Benitez will set the team up in his usually compact style, avoiding giving the opposition time between the lines. But then the same is true of Corinthians. This game could well descend into something similar to the old Chelsea v Liverpool games, tight tactical encounters with little free flowing football. All the pressure is on Chelsea, but they face a huge battle to get their hands on this trophy. Defeat would be a major blow for the fledgling Benitez regime.