Club World Cup preview: Real Madrid and Club America head to Japan
The 2016 FIFA Club World Cup begins Thursday in Japan, with seven teams from around the globe vying for the title, which will be handed out Dec. 17. ESPN FC's Nick Ames profiles the competing clubs and what to watch for over the 10-day tournament.
Here's the match schedule, with Kashima Antlers facing Auckland City in the playoff round on Dec. 8.
First game: vs. Jeonbuk Motors or Club America, Dec. 15
Who are they? Champions League holders, leaders of La Liga by six points and winners of this competition two years ago too. There are no prizes for guessing why Real are overwhelming favourites to win the Club World Cup this year, and their toughest opponent this time around might be their hectic schedule on domestic and European fronts.
Manager: Zinedine Zidane was a winner on the pitch, and the early evidence is that he is one off it as well. A Champions League title less than five months after his appointment as Real Madrid manager was not a bad start, and with La Liga very much in his sights this season, a Club World Cup would certainly burnish his early achievements. He has previous success on this stage too: He won this competition's predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup, as a player with Juventus in 1996 and Real in 2002.
Star player: Cristiano Ronaldo is the one the Japanese fans will want to see, and with Gareth Bale (who scored in the 2014 final) sidelined through injury for the foreseeable future, there will be high hopes that Real's talisman comes to the party and produces. Ronaldo has yet to score in this competition, a fact that will not have gone unnoticed by such a self-aware talent.
First game: vs. Jeonbuk Motors, Dec. 11
Who are they? Club America successfully defended their CONCAFAC Champions League title in April by defeating Tigres to win the trophy for the sixth time. They're back for another stab at the Club World Cup. This is their third participation; they finished fourth in 2006 and fifth last year and hope to at least match the former this time by qualifying for a semifinal clash against Real Madrid on Dec. 15.
Manager: Ricardo La Volpe took the America job in September some 20 years after another short-lived stint. The 64-year-old Argentinian is a colourful character who gained notoriety from his habit of smoking on the touchline. Perhaps the best-known of his numerous managerial feats came when he took Mexico to the round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup.
Star player: Oribe Peralta is an experienced centre-forward who continues to score regularly for club and country. He has 23 goals for the Mexican senior team and represented El Tri at this year's Olympics, though he had to leave early after breaking his nose. Since joining America from Santos Laguna in 2014, the 32-year-old poacher has scored 50 times.
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
First game: vs. Club America, Dec. 11
Who are they? Korean side Jeonbuk won their second AFC Champions League in November by defeating Al-Ain 3-2 on aggregate to secure their place in Japan. It is a quick turnaround for the four-time K League champions, who beat Auckland 3-0 to finish fifth in their only previous Club World Cup appearance back in 2006. The two could conceivably play for the same "prize" again this time.
Manager: Choi Kang-hee is in his second spell managing Jeonbuk, with a two-year stint in charge of the national team in between. He won 40 caps for South Korea as a player, but it is as a manager that he has virtually swept the board of honours available. He first took over in 2005, when Jeonbuk were an average domestic side; now they are a continental force.
Star player: Brazilian winger Leonardo scored twice in the 2-1 first-leg win over Al-Ain and set his club on course for their latest famous victory, with his ninth and 10th goals of that run. The 30-year-old has been superb since moving from AEK Athens in 2012 after a seven-year spell with three different clubs in Greece. He boasts the quality to decide matches in Japan this month.
First game: vs. Auckland City, Dec. 8
Who are they? The hosts country's representatives won their eighth J.League title this month and are perhaps best-known to foreign fans through the presence of Zico -- as both player and, briefly, manager -- on their books during the 1990s. They were founded in 1947 and have been comfortably the league's most successful side since it began in 1993.
Manager: The 49-year-old Masatada Ishii was a player with the Antlers during their early J.League years, and he took the managerial reins last year. This season's title win was secured only within the past week; Ishii admits there might be some fatigue after the away goals championship final win over Urawa Reds that saw them qualify for this competition. Yet he vows they will "fight like Japanese champions" through it.
Star player: Mitsuo Ogasawara will turn 38 in April but remains an influential presence in the Antlers' midfield. A loan spell in Italy with Messina aside, he has been with the club since 1998 and is nearing the 700-appearance mark. Ogasawara, who won 55 caps for Japan between 2002 and 2010, is a technically gifted creative force and will be required to carve out chances against high-level opponents.
First game: vs. Kashima Antlers, Dec. 8
Who are they? The eight-time OFC Champions League winners are virtually an annual presence at this tournament nowadays and secured a shock third-place finish in 2014 after overcoming Mexican side Cruz Azul on penalties. Last time around, they were less lucky, losing to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the quarterfinal playoff. They will hope for better fortune against Japanese opponents at the same stage this time.
Manager: Spanish coach Ramon Tribulietx has a superb record with Auckland, taking them to this competition six times since his appointment in 2010, and he remains in charge, despite numerous links with moves elsewhere in recent years. This could be his swansong, though, as he has been strongly mentioned in connection with the vacant position at domestic rivals Wellington Phoenix.
Star player: Croatian midfielder Mario Bilen was integral to Auckland's Club World Cup adventure two years ago, and they will hope he is passed fit for this year's quarterfinal playoff with Kashima Antlers after tweaking a hamstring. Bilen is an important ball-winning presence, and if the 31-year-old doesn't make it, there will be added pressure on another experienced head in the middle, former Liverpool player, Albert Riera.
First game: vs. Mamelodi Sundowns or Kashima Antlers/Auckland City, Dec. 14
Who are they? The Colombian side enter their first Club World Cup at the semifinal stage, but their buildup has been difficult after the tragic plane accident involving Chapecoense, who had been due to play them in the Copa Sudamericana final. They qualified for this tournament after beating Ecuadorian team Independiente del Valle 2-1 on aggregate in a tense Copa Libertadores final back in July. Incredibly, their number of domestic and international commitments means they could well play 86 games this calendar year.
Manager: Reinaldo Rueda is an experienced head at the top level, having taken the Honduras and Ecuador national sides to the World Cup after a four-year spell in charge of his native Colombia. He has been a huge success with Atletico Nacional since taking the helm last year for his first club role since 2005. His teams are known for their organisation. As a result, Atletico can be fancied for a place in this year's final.
Star player: Atletico Nacional would not have come this far without the stunning impact of Miguel Borja. The 23-year-old striker (who has one cap for Colombia) was once considered a prodigy in Serie A with Livorno, but he moved back home and, after joining from Cortulua in June, scored twice against Sao Paulo in the Copa Libertadores semifinal on his debut. He did the same again in the second leg and then scored the decisive goal in the final. What an impact.
First game: vs. Kashima Antlers or Auckland City, Dec. 11
Who are they? Mamelodi Sundowns are the first southern African team to appear in this competition, and they earned their spot by winning the CAF Champions League final against Egyptian side Zamalek in October. The Pretoria-based club have won South Africa's Premier Soccer League seven times and are known as the "Brazilians" due to their yellow, green and blue colours.
Manager: Pitso Mosimane said third place would be a good achievement for his side in Japan, and the 52-year-old certainly has the nous to guide them there. He was assistant national team coach at the 2010 World Cup, which South Africa hosted, and spent two years as number one after Carlos Alberto Parreira's departure. Previously with Supersport United, he has won two league titles since joining Sundowns (where he also spent time as a player) in 2012, and this year, he became the first South African to lead a club to the CAF Champions League title.
Star player: The 22-year-old attacking midfielder Percy Tau has earned rave reviews in recent months. He has arguably been the South African league's breakout star, with six high-quality goals this season. He also made an impact in the team's Champions League campaign, scoring a vital clincher against Zambian side ZESCO United in the semifinal. Tau still has rough edges, but scouts will be watching with interest this month.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.