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Dec 5, 2012

Japan set for global gathering

The Club World Cup is a competition that divides opinion: those who play in it defend its value, while those who don't ridicule it as a commerce-driven waste of time.

But it remains the only truly global club tournament at the professional level of the game and its previous winners will testify that the title of 'world champion' is one that is worth competing for.

Although the Club World Cup is set up to favour the big boys from Europe and South America - the champions of those continents get direct passage to the semi-finals - the run of African side TP Mazembe to the 2010 final provided the sort of surprise and entertainment that make football the world's most popular sport.

Here, ESPN FC has the lowdown on the seven clubs contesting this year's competition in Japan, with Chelsea looking to extend Europe's five-year monopoly on the trophy.

Europe/UEFA: Chelsea (England)

Who are they? After seven managers and eight failed cracks at the UEFA Champions League, Chelsea finally gave owner Roman Abramovich the trophy he had for so long coveted in May, when Didier Drogba stroked home the winning penalty in a dramatic shootout victory over Bayern Munich. Delivering the Russian billionaire his Holy Grail was not enough for Roberto Di Matteo to secure a long-term future at the club, however, and the Italian was controversially dismissed in November with the Blues teetering on the brink of failure to progress to the Champions League knockout stage.

It is now up to interim boss Rafa Benitez, who lost a Club World Cup final with Liverpool in 2005 but triumphed with Inter Milan in 2010, to try to secure global domination for Chelsea - though he has endured a difficult start to life at Stamford Bridge having overseen two draws and a loss in his opening three Premier League games. His challenge is to provide not just trophies but the attractive attacking football that Abramovich has craved since being inspired to buy a football club after watching Manchester United's 4-3 victory over Real Madrid in 2003. The additions of flair players like Oscar and Eden Hazard were made with that end goal in mind, and though Chelsea have been struggling recently, they enter the Club World Cup as favourites.

Captain: John Terry. Having missed the decisive spot-kick in the 2008 Champions League final and been suspended as his team-mates lifted the trophy four years later, Terry will be champing at the bit to finish what has been a difficult year on and off the pitch with a piece of silverware in Tokyo. No matter what his misdemeanours, there has never been a question of Terry's commitment and influence when he steps over the white line and the former England skipper always retains the support of an adoring Chelsea faithful.

Player to watch: Oscar. Building on a hugely impressive Olympic tournament with Brazil, Oscar managed to quickly integrate into the Chelsea first-team following his arrival from Internacional and has demonstrated that he relishes the big stage, having scored four goals in five Champions League appearances. A dynamic presence in the Blues midfield, Oscar will no doubt be hoping for a final showdown with Corinthians, city rivals of his boyhood club Sao Paulo.

Prediction: Winners.


South America/CONMEBOL: Corinthians (Brazil)

Who are they? Despite boasting one of the biggest fanbases in Brazil and the deepest pockets of any football club in the country, Corinthians were made to wait 35 years for their first Copa Libertadores triumph. Having made their bow in the competition in 1977, the Coringão faced numerous disappointments in subsequent editions, and even suffered a first domestic relegation in 2007, before finally breaking their duck in July when beating South America's second-most successful club side of all time, Boca Juniors, in the final. Romarinho's late equaliser in the first leg in Argentina was arguably the decisive moment of the tie, with a pair of Emerson strikes back at the Estádio do Pacaembu bringing home the silverware.

Although Corinthians had never previously claimed continental glory, they were able to boast the tag of 'world champions' in 2000. The Club World Cup's predecessor, the FIFA Club World Championship, was held in Brazil to much fanfare and, as domestic champions, Corinthians were invited to play. Emerging from a group containing European giants Real Madrid, Oswaldo de Oliveira's charges then beat Copa Libertadores holders Vasco de Gama on penalties in the final at the Maracanã. Should a first appearance at the Club World Cup in its current guise prove as fruitful, the side who recently finished sixth in Brazil's top flight would be the first South American side to lift the trophy since Internacional in 2006.

Captain: Alessandro. A Brazilian fixer of sorts, the veteran right-back has previously helped Gremio and Palmeiras to promotions from Serie B and he repeated the trick after joining then-newly relegated Corinthians in 2007. Although his pace has begun to desert him, Alessandro remains one of Brazil's most respected defenders and he is as keen as ever to bomb down the right flank. He took over the captaincy from Chicao during Corinthians' title-winning season in 2011 and he added Copa Libertadores honours a year later.

Player to watch: Paulinho. An energetic box-to-box midfielder ("segundo-volante") who is being courted by Europe's elite, Paulinho was named Brazil's best central midfielder in 2011. He continued to be a hugely influential figure during the 2012 Copa Libertadores, with his most crucial contribution coming in the quarter-final victory over Vasco De Gama - his 87th-minute header was the only goal of the tie. Paulinho made his debut for Brazil last year and has scored twice in the Selecao's last five games, with his first coming in the Superclasico de las Americas against Argentina.

Prediction: Runners-up.


Asia/AFC: Ulsan Hyundai FC (South Korea)

Who are they? Not among the traditional powers in Asian football, Ulsan have only twice won their domestic title, with the last triumph coming in 2005. But, inspired by the prospect of playing this year's AFC Champions League final at their own Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium, Kim Ho-Gon's side went 12 matches unbeaten to reach the showpiece, before dispatching Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Ahli 3-0 in front of a partisan crowd in November. A record nine successive wins took them to glory in what was the third time in four years a Korean club have won the trophy, with only Al-Sadd preventing a clean sweep since the single-leg final was introduced in 2009.

Ulsan's previous ventures into the AFC Champions League had ended with an enthralling 6-4 semi-final defeat to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2006 and a disappointing group-stage exit in 2005. But some swashbuckling displays from the side - who had finished sixth in the K-League in 2011 before showing their knockout credentials by narrowly losing the Championship-deciding play-off final - led to a maiden continental crown and a Club World Cup debut. Unfortunately, the famous victory over Al-Ahli also did not even secure passage into next year's AFC Champions League because the tournament winners are not automatically invited back and Ulsan finished outside the K-League's qualification places.

Captain: Kwak Tae-Hwi. The skipper of both his club and the South Korea national team, Kwak is imperious in the air and equally robust on the ground, and was named in the K-League's 2012 Best XI. The centre-back is also known for getting among the goals: he was Ulsan's top scorer in the 2011 K-League and netted the opening goal in the 2012 AFC Champions League final with a typically assured headed finish.

Player to watch: Lee Keun-Ho. Named 2012 Asian Player of the Year last week, Lee and is desperate to impress on a global platform before he starts his compulsory military service. He is at his best playing just behind the striker and boasts movement, awareness and vision - and no little goalscoring ability. Lee starred in Ulsan's AFC Champions League triumph, scoring in the last-16, quarter-final and one in each leg of the semi-final, and was selected as the tournament's MVP for his efforts.

Prediction: Third place.


Africa/CAF: Al-Ahly (Egypt)

Who are they? Al-Ahly's record-extending seventh continental triumph was their most poignant to date, set against the backdrop of one of football's worst ever tragedies. The ugly riots at the Port Said Stadium in February saw 72 Al-Ahly fans perish and the Egyptian Premier League season cancelled. With no domestic games - aside from a Super Cup encounter against ENPPI - having been played since then, and Al-Ahly forced to play all of their CAF Champions League matches behind closed doors, the club's victory over Tunisian giants and reigning champions Esperance in the final was truly a remarkable achievement.

Led by former midfielder Hossam El-Badry, who was part of the club's first African Cup of Champions victory in 1982, Al-Ahly will be aiming to emulate their third-placed finish at the Club World Cup in 2006 when they missed out on place in the final with a narrow 2-1 defeat to Internacional in the last four. That success is tempered somewhat by their other two appearances in 2005 and 2008, which ended in embarrassing defeat in the fifth-place play-off.

Captain: Hossam Ghaly. The Egypt international started his career at Al-Ahly and has now come full circle, rejoining the club in 2010 and immediately becoming skipper following the departure of Ahmad Belal. Ghaly will be familiar to Chelsea fans having scored against them in the FA Cup during a frustrating three-year period with Tottenham, with the once bit-part midfielder now an integral part of his Al-Ahly side - exemplified by an all-action display in last month's CAF Champions League final.

Player to watch: Mohamed Aboutrika. More heavily affected by the Port Said tragedy than most, Aboutrika announced his retirement in the immediate aftermath of the incident and required much persuasion to reverse the decision. After winning the CAF Champions League, he dedicated the victory "to the martyrs of Port Said". Aboutrika is a five-time Egyptian Footballer of the Year and runner-up for the 2008 African Footballer of the Year award, and although his powers may be waning a little, the man who was top scorer at the 2007 Club World Cup will be aiming to take what could be his final chance to shine on the world stage.

Prediction: Fourth place.


Central and North America, Caribbean/CONCACAF: Monterrey

Who are they? Back in April, Monterrey became only the third club to retain the CONCACAF Champions League trophy - fellow Mexican sides Cruz Azul and Pachuca the other two - when they beat rivals Santos Laguna 3-2 on aggregate in a thrilling final. Having won the first leg 2-0 at home, Victor Manuel Vucetich's team were 2-0 down in the second leg and heading for extra-time when Neri Cardozo pounced for an 82nd-minute strike that settled the tie. Santos had a measure of revenge when they denied their rivals the Mexican Clausura title a month later with a 3-2 final victory of their own.

Monterrey competed in last year's Club World Cup, but suffered quarter-final disappointment with a heartbreaking penalty shootout defeat to J-League champions Kashiwa Reysol, who had qualified due to Tokyo's hosting of the competition. The Mexican outfit finished on a high, though, with a 3-2 victory over Esperance of Tunisia in the fifth-place play-off. And despite a poor Apertura season, which saw them finish seventh in the table, Monterrey will be determined to progress to the semi-finals on their return to Japan.

Captain: Jose Maria Basanta. The departure to Guadalajara of influential former skipper and club icon Luis Perez, who led Monterrey through the most successful period in their history, was a major blow during the summer. His mantle of midfield dynamism has been taken up by Angel Reyna, while his armband has gone to Basanta. The centre-back is also revered by the Monterrey faithful - not least because his crucial header against Santos Laguna in 2010 helped the club retain their Apertura title. An emotional player, the Argentinean centre-back is certainly not afraid to speak his mind to referees or team-mates.

Player to watch: Humberto Suazo. After a slow start following his arrival from Colo-Colo in 2007, Suazo has established himself as an integral player for the Rayados. Scorer of the winning goal in the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League final against Real Salt Lake, he provided another decisive contribution in this year's showpiece, with his pair of goals in the 2-0 first-leg victory setting Monterrey on their way to another triumph and sealing his position as the competition's top scorer in 2012. A difficult Apertura campaign for the club could have been significantly worse was it not for the six goals of Suazo, who also scored in last year's Club World Cup quarter-final.

Prediction: Fifth place.


Hosts: Sanfreece Hiroshima.

Who are they? The only non-continental champions competing in Tokyo, Sanfreece earned their place at the Club World Cup by winning host nation Japan's domestic league. Their first J-League title was secured in late November, coming just four years after they won promotion from the country's second division. A fourth-place finish in their first season back in the top flight brought an inaugural AFC Champions League campaign - a rollercoaster ride that saw three losses in a row followed by three wins in a row and a narrow group-stage exit. Former Sanfreece and Japan midfielder Hajime Moriyasu - in his first managerial position - has a stronger unit at his disposal now, however, and will be targeting a play-off victory over Auckland and quarter-final showdown with African champions Al-Ahly as a minimum requirement.

Captain: Hisato Sato. The Japan international stood by Sanfreece when they were relegated in 2007 and spearheaded their immediate return to the J-League, finishing as the second tier's top scorer with 28 goals. In 2012, Sato repeated the trick - the loyal striker's 22 goals fired Sanfreece to the J-League title and saw him claim both the Golden Boot and J-League Player of the Year awards.

Player to watch: Koji and Kazayuki Morisaki. A pair of twins who are often hard to separate on the pitch, the defensive midfield duo form the engine room of the "Purple Archers", breaking up attacks and starting their own. Quiet and efficient, they rarely put a foot wrong. Perhaps it is not surprising that they operate on the same wavelength and then ensure the rest of the team join them.

Prediction: Sixth place.


Oceania/OFC: Auckland City (New Zealand)

Who are they? The dominant force in Oceanic football for the past decade, Auckland claimed their fourth OFC Champions League trophy in seven years in May with a two-legged victory over Tahitian minnows Tefana, who had remarkably recovered from a 10-0 pasting in their first match of the tournament to make it all the way to the final. Auckland's previous two final triumphs had finished 9-4 and 6-1 but they were made to work harder this time, with a 2-1 home win followed by a narrow 1-0 victory on the French Polynesian island.

As the tournament's chief underdogs, Auckland face the biggest challenge to claim global glory - they would need to win four successive games to secure the trophy, while Corinthians and Chelsea need just two. The New Zealanders face J-League champions Hiroshima Sanfreece in their opening match and have lost that first play-off on two of their previous three appearances at the Club World Cup - the only exception being a memorable victory over Al-Ahli in 2009. Victory against Hiroshima would be viewed as a major achievement for the Oceanic champions.

Captain: Ivan Vicelich. The veteran defender started his career at Auckland's rivals Waitakere City but his allegiances were switched when he returned to his homeland in 2008 after seven years in Europe with Dutch side Roda JC and Belgian outfit RKC Waalwijk. Back in New Zealand, Vicelich has enjoyed an Indian summer, having won three OFC Champions League titles, played for the All Whites at the 2010 World Cup and been named OFC Player of the Year in 2009. The 36-year-old's experience will be vital at the heart of Auckland's defence.

Player to watch: Manel Exposito. There are few, if any, players in Oceania who can lay claim to playing alongside Lionel Messi but Auckland boast one in Exposito, who featured in the same Barcelona B team as the world's best player and made his debut for the Catalans in the same match Messi made his bow, at the official opening of FC Porto's Estadio do Dragao in 2003. Exposito, a classy forward with a cultured left foot and the sort of Spanish flair that one would expect from a player once associated with Barcelona, was the leading scorer in last season's OFC Champions League and scored a vital goal in the final - the only strike in the 1-0 second-leg victory that secured continental glory.

Prediction: Play-off losers.

Follow me on Twitter - @marklomasESPN

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