Barcelona contest the Club World Cup in Japan boasting arguably the most devastating strike-force the game has seen and as red-hot favourites to lift the trophy for a third time.
Barring any shocks, Argentina’s River Plate will await the European champions in the final in Yokohama on December 20.
But ‘Los Millonarios’ face an almost impossible task in stopping Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, who have plundered a jaw-dropping 126 goals for Barca in 2015 — more than Spanish rivals Real Madrid.
River touched down in Japan on Tuesday following a 30-hour journey after thousands of fans had lined the streets to see them off in Buenos Aires.
“It was unique,” said midfielder Carlos Sanchez.
“It’s great to see the fans so excited. It really moves you. We’ve got a big responsibility,” added Sanchez.
“It’s a dream to play against a team as great as Barcelona,” said midfielder Matias Kranevitter, who is poised to join Atletico Madrid in January. “I have always dreamed of winning this competition in a River Plate shirt.”
Barcelona, who have captured the Champions League, Spain’s La Liga, the Copa del Rey and European Super Cup this year, first have to negotiate a semi-final against either Mexico’s Club America or Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande, the Asian champions.
River Plate, holders of the South American Libertadores Cup, face either Congolese side Mazembe — surprise finalists five years ago — or the winners of Thursday’s opening game between newly crowned J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Auckland City.
Barca have won the Club World Cup twice since the revamped FIFA format was launched in 2000, beating Argentina’s Estudiantes 2-1 in 2009 and thrashing Brazil’s Santos 4-0 two years later.
European teams have won the title seven times of the 11 years the competition has been played.
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“We are flying to Japan with the aim of delivering two strong performances and returning home as champions,” said Barca’s Javier Mascherano, who began his career with River Plate in Buenos Aires.
“But we have got to win our semi-final first. It’s a very important tournament for us.”
The arrival of Barca’s superstars is set to trigger wild scenes in celebrity-obsessed Japan, where superstars such as David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have been mobbed in the past.
Barca fly to Japan after taking on Deportivo La Coruna at the Nou Camp at the weekend, while River Plate’s club season has ended, giving coach Marcelo Gallardo extra time to devise a plan to prevent Messi, Suarez and Neymar from running riot.
Their task may be eased as Neymar — who has scored 16 times in 18 appearanced this season — could be ruled out after limping away from training for Barca’s European Champions League clash at Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday with what was described as “a small” muscle strain.
Last year’s final also pitted teams from Spain and Argentina with Real Madrid beating San Lorenzo 2-0 in a match marred by some industrial tactics from the South Americans.
Estudiantes took Barca to extra time in 2009 but Suarez has added a new dimension to the Catalan giants, giving them a more direct option with his darting runs opening up space for Neymar and Messi.
River possess a threat of their own in striker Lucas Alario, but faced by Barca’s wizardry he could be forced to plough a lonely furrow on what is likely to be a long, chilly evening in Yokohama, where gloves and stockings will be in order. – Agence France-Presse