Is FC Barcelona the best team in the world? Well, we will find out by 1:30PM CET on Sunday. Of course the FIFA World Club Cup Final is approaching and it the showdown everyone expected, Santos vs Barcelona; Neymar vs Lionel Messi. Now, it would be foolish to suggest Neymar is the only decent player on the Santos team, far from it. Ganso (Paulo Henrique) is another standout talent, perhaps one of the best in the position, while Elano has proved himself at the highest level, and could lay claim to being Santos’ best player.
Well, he could, but we all know that the spotlight is on Neymar for a reason; this is a kid destined for the top. One way or another, whether it is for Barcelona, Real Madrid or maybe even Chelsea, this is a striker that looks set to dominate the headlines over the coming years, and challenge for individual awards as well. Quite fitting then that he gets the opportunity to duel with Lionel Messi, the current Ballon D’Or holder.
Santos are a good side, but let’s not get carried away here. The only reason(s) that they have reached such a stage is the prodigal talent of Neymar and Ganso. The team is built around the two to such an extent that the centre-forward has more defensive responsibility than both Neymar and Ganso combined. Pele goes overboard with his praise of Neymar, but he knows that this Santos team is not even a patch on the one he famously led to worldwide recognition.
That Santos side destroyed a Benfica side that contained a 20-year old Eusebio in 1962 before beating Milan in a play-off the following season. This Santos will surely have to beat Barcelona if they have any hope of challenging Pele’s achievements.
Looking to lead the Peixe to a historic third Club World Cup (although only the first in its current format) is Muricy Ramalho, who must go down as one of the best current Brazilian managers. Famous for his three years in charge at Sao Paulo where he won three consecutive league titles, I must say that he is a fine domestic manager, but has struggled in continental competition. One might expect that the Brazilian league winners would be among the favourites for the Copa Libertadores? Well, with Sao Paulo he never won the famous competition and it was only when he joined Santos that he finally managed to claim South American football’s biggest prize.
Ramalho was also offered the Brazilian national team job, but his club at the time, Fluminense refused to allow him to leave. En route to winning the Copa Libertadores, Santos never managed to win by more than one goal over a two-legged tie and they were not very impressive on Wednesday. Durval appeared to be the weak link at left-back and as a result, Neymar had to drift around the pitch to make any impact. They looked particularly poor at set pieces, something Kashiwa exploited for their goal, and Carles Puyol must fancy his chances if the situation arises.
Victor Valdes will start in goal, and as he was rested on Thursday, I anticipate Gerard Pique to start centre-back. Carles Puyol picked up a small knock versus Al Sadd (who didn’t?) although I expect Puyol to captain the side. Dani Alves is a sure-fire starter at right-back, and as I mentioned earlier, Durval looks to be a weak link at left-back, but more on that later.
Eric Abidal should complete the defensive line-up at left-back and he will have to be careful with Danilo operating at right-back. Danilo is certainly a right-back in the mould of Dani Alves, but just as Abidal must be careful, the same can be said of the Brazilian. If he leaves a substantial gap on the right, it will be capitalised upon and whether Henrique (not to be confused with the ex-Barca man or Ganso) covers if Danilo ventures forward remains to be seen. If he does not, Edu Dracena will be left to deal with Barcelona almost by himself, but Elano could offer a hand given his relative experience as a right-back.
In midfield, I see no reason not to start the usual suspects; Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta and they will be vital if Barcelona are to return as World Champions. Busquets may have more defensive responsibilities with Ganso on the pitch, but the best defensive strategy for this club is and always has been possession. Offensively, the only guaranteed starter is Lionel Messi, but Pedro is likely to start on left-wing.
The final spot is up for grabs as Alexis Sanchez is doubtful for this final with a muscle problem, and I for one would campaign for Isaac Cuenca to start on the right. That way the Blaugrana can fully exploit the weakness on the left-flank, and engineer a number of 2-on-1 situations on the right hand side. Neymar will not track back very often, leaving Alves free to roam forward and it would not be the first time that Cuenca and Alves have caused havoc for an opposition.
That being said, Cesc Fabregas was left on the bench for Thursday’s match, hinting that he will start tomorrow, almost certainly instead of Cuenca. That would leave Barcelona with a very similar XI to the one that started against Real Madrid, and Guardiola could test Muricy Ramalho’s tactical nous by utilising the same hybrid 4-3-3/3-4-3 formation that worked so well against Mourinho and Real.
Given the importance Guardiola has placed upon this competition, I expect that same 3-4-3/4-3-3 hybrid, and hopefully the same result!
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win 3-1, with Messi grabbing two, Pedro getting the other and Neymar scoring along the way.