Santos dreams of Barca matchup
It has been a busy few months for Barcelona, the European champions, making sure of their place in the knockout stage of the Champions League and taking the field in all their domestic games knowing that every point they drop makes it harder for them to retain their Spanish title. Then, of course, Pep Guardiola's side won its most important match of the season so far, a 3-1 win over Real Madrid in the Clasico.
For the Catalan giants, flying off to Japan for their semifinal match on Dec. 15 in the World Club Cup is an afterthought.
For Santos, meanwhile, the Club World Cup occupies every thought. Ever since Pele's old club won the Copa Libertadores in June, the players have been fixated by the idea of having a crack at Lionel Messi & Co. Santos sailed through the Brazilian championship with its mind elsewhere, occasionally waking up to find itself flirting with the relegation zone, putting on a quick spurt and then going to sleep once more.
Santos finished 10th, with their bodies in Brazil but their minds dreaming of December in Japan.
First, of course, they must negotiate a semifinal -- and if they really want to take on Barcelona, Santos has to hope that Messi and Barcelona safely get through theirs.
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Last year's Club World Cup results serve as a dreadful warning. International of Porto Alegre, the 2010 Libertadores winner, lost its semi to African champions TP Mazembe and missed out on its big day. Internazionale of Italy cruised to the title and showed how little it meant to them by calmly dismissing their coach.
The gulf in perceptions of the Club World Cup is not hard to explain. The world is already present in the Champions League, the best players from the four corners of the globe congregated in the top European teams. This has led to a huge imbalance of forces in the Club World Cup.
True, there have been South American success stories. Sao Paulo beat Liverpool in 2005, and fellow Brazilians Internacional overcame Barcelona the following year. But both times the winners took the field with a strategy that clearly acknowledged the superiority of their rivals. They fought from a trench, hung on for dear life and broke out once to score with a counterattack. It did not produce a spectacle likely to hold the attention of the neutral fan.
This year could be different. There has been a tilt in the balance of economic forces, with Europe being rocked while Brazil has thrived. That is now reflected on the pitch, especially on the South American side of the Atlantic.
A few years ago there would have been no question about it. An outstanding figure like Santos' Neymar would already be playing his football in Europe, maybe even with Barcelona. But in the new scenario, Santos has been able to hold on to its star attraction, the most dazzling talent produced by Brazilian football in years.
The rest of the world gets carried away by the Messi-versus-Cristiano Ronaldo debate. But from a Brazilian perspective, the duel of the best two players in the world will have to wait for next weekend, when -- providing their teams get through their semifinals -- Messi will be on the same pitch as Neymar.
There are some in Brazil who argue that Neymar is already better. This is surely premature, but Santos coach Muricy Ramalho is of the view that his player has the potential to outstrip Barcelona's No. 10.
"Before long he'll be the best in the world," says Ramalho of Neymar. "The two are similar, but Neymar is a bit more special. His style alternates the direction of the ball as he carries it, while Messi dribbles more in a straight line.
"Neymar is unpredictable. You don't find anyone in the world who does what he can with the ball."
What will he be able to do with it against Barcelona? If he cuts his way through the high defensive line of his opponents, Neymar will be able to do some serious damage. It will indeed be fascinating to see how he copes with the test. Will Barcelona's high-intensity pressing deny him the space to unleash his dribbles? And how will he react if he does not get the soft fouls he is generally awarded in Brazil? Will he be able to control a tendency toward petulance?
These are all intriguing questions, some of which also surround his teammate, playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso. Hailed as a phenomenon 18 months ago, Ganso has not made the progress expected of him, largely because of long layoffs with injury. The Barcelona game would be an ideal stage for him to announce his arrival. If all goes to plan for Santos, Ganso will make the bullets for Neymar to fire.
In addition to the talent of his wunderkinds, Ramalho will certainly be looking to another weapon to get the best of Barcelona. His teams have not always been aesthetically pleasing, but they have invariably been efficient. Between 2006-08, Ramalho won three Brazilian titles in a row with Sao Paulo, featuring game plans based on tight defense, and corners and free kicks thrown high into the opponent's box for a phalanx of giants waiting to attack. There must be moments when Ramalho catches himself looking at the lack of height on the Barcelona side and licks his lips in anticipation. This is why the return from injury of Elano could be so important -- he is the club's most effective striker of set pieces.
Ramalho will not care too much how the victory is achieved. But whatever happens, it would be nice if the teams could provide the kind of spectacle capable of grabbing global attention, one that could cement the place of the World Club Cup in the game's calendar.
Tim Vickery is an English football journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1994 and specializes in South American football.
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