Alexis Sanchez is the big doubt for Pep Guardiola in the build-up to Sunday’s Club World Cup Final between Barça and Santos Futebol Clube of Brazil. Alexis strained a thigh muscle in Thursday’s 4-0 semi final win over Al Sadd after coming on for the injured David Villa. There is something strange in the way we always seem to get injuries to players who play in the same position, and if Alexis isn’t ready in time our attacking options are considerably reduced, though of course we do have so much versatility in the squad.
Two years ago when we first won this competition in Abu Dhabi we saw how important this trophy is to Guardiola. In 2009 it meant the completion of six out of six trophies, in 2011 we have won Liga, Champions League and the two Supercups so beating Santos in Yokohama will complete another incredible year. However, this is much more than just another trophy. There is something very special about being World Champions and I very much enjoyed the feeling with the nail-biting win over Estudiantes two years ago, and I’d love us to do it again.
I’m also delighted that our opponent is Santos. I’m pretty sure they are the first South American club team I was ever aware of thanks to the great Edson Arantes do Nascimento. In case there are any younger fans out there who have never heard of Pele, he was a Brazilian bloke who scored a lot of goals for Santos in the 1960s and was nearly as good as Leo Messi. Pele led Santos to their two Intercontinental Cups back in 1962 and 1963 but this is their first time since then that they have made it back to the final. Nowadays, of course, the big star for Santos is the immensely talented 19-year-old Neymar da Silva Santos Junior who no doubt will cross the water one day to play for either Barça or Madrid. However, we will also need to watch out for striker Humberlito Borges who scored in the 3-1 win over Kashiwa Reysol in the other semi-final on Wednesday, and Paulo Henrique Ganso who looks like a dangerous attacking midfielder while you may remember Elano Blumer from his time at Manchester City though now he plays a little deeper. The common belief is that Santos are a much better team going forward than defending so we should hope for an exciting open game, though I imagine they will end up being forced back while looking to hit us on the counter-attack.
Guardiola rested Alves, Piqué, Busquets, Xavi and Cesc for the semi-final and they should all return to the team though Piqué might be left out especially if Pep wants to switch to the 3-4-3. Given the occasion it wouldn’t surprise me to see Alves back on the right wing at least for parts of the game. If Alexis doesn’t start his place could be taken by Pedro, though with Guardiola you never know and Iniesta, Cuenca and Adriano could all be used on the left, while the chances of Thiago finding a place in Pep’s XI will have risen after his performance on Thursday. I have to admit that I’d love to see Thiago start though with Cesc, Xavi and Iniesta all probable starters it will be difficult to find a place.
Everything is set for us to take our crown. However, we should be warned, five years ago we also faced Brazilian opponents in the final in Japan after Ronaldinho led us to a 4-0 win in the semi-final. Everybody expected us to win, but Internacional from Porto Alegre beat us 1-0 with a late breakaway goal after we had dominated play. It would be a terrible shame to go so far and come home empty-handed. Pep Guardiola’s players have proved time and again that they form the best team in the world. On Sunday I believe they will prove it again but it’s going to be a tremendous test over 90 minutes. Bring it on!
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Fabregas, Pedro.
Santos: Cabral; Danilo, Dracena, Durval, Rodrigo; Henrique, Arouca, Elano, Ganso; Borges, Neymar.
My prediction: Barça 3 Santos 1