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2017 Club World Cup Preview: Can Pachuca End Liga MX Slump?

The 2017 FIFA Club World Cup is nearly here, and it’s about time we took a look at each of the seven participating teams. People have a lot of differing opinions on this competition, but I personally love the idea of it and am always excited when it comes around each year. Sure, it isn’t the most prestigious trophy in the world, and it maybe doesn’t mean quite as much to the UEFA participant as it does to everyone else, but at the end of the day this is a chance for the powerhouses of each region to showcase what they’ve got against the very best in the world; and for that I think it is worth watching.

There are quite a few interesting storylines heading into this tournament, including Real Madrid being the first team with potential to repeat as Club World Champions. The story us here in CONCACAF, though, is the question of how Pachuca will fare. It’s no secret that CONCACAF (Read: Liga MX) teams have been poor at this competition in the past; and following Pachuca’s weak Apertura campaign it looks like the dark ages might continue.

 

Now unless you are a Club World Cup nerd like myself, chances are you haven’t seen all of the participants in action before. Let’s take a brief look at each of the seven clubs participating this year.

Al-Jazira (UAE)

Al-Jazira are representing the host nation of the United Arab Emirates, and earned their spot by winning the 2016-17 UAE Pro-League. They ran away with the title, finishing 11 points ahead of 2nd placed Al-Wasl, but sit in just 6th (of 12) so far in the 2017-18 season. The club did compete in this year’s Asian Champions League, where they finished last in their group.

While they are probably the 2nd weakest team in the tournament, they will be playing in front of some home crowds in the earlier matches, and they do have Emirati superman Ali Mabkhout, who regularly scores 30+ goals a year for the club and has amassed over 40 goals for the UAE national team. He alone makes Al-Jazira a fun watch, and is one of the best Asian strikers in the world.

Auckland City (New Zealand)

OFC’s representative has been here before: 8 other times in fact. While they dominate the world’s smallest region year in and year out, they haven’t had much success outside of a miracle run to the bronze medal in 2014, in which they beat Cruz Azul in the 3rd place match. Don’t expect much from these guys other than a first round exit to Al-Jazira.

But, they certainly do have experience, so while they may be outgunned by the richer clubs from the rest of the world, they do have that little bit of extra familiarity with the tournament. Current captain Ángel Berlanga has been around since that 3rd place campaign, as have a few others.

Urawa Red Diamonds (Japan)

Urawa are another team that had a slightly down domestic season despite winning the AFC Champions League, finishing 7th in the J1 League. But of course, last year’s unsuspecting Japanese entrants, Kashima Antlers, made a run to the final before falling to Real Madrid 4-2 after extra time. The stars for Urawa include Brazilian forward Rafael Silva and controlling midfielder Yōsuke Kashiwagi, who was named MVP of the Champions League.

Urawa will play the winner of Al-Jazira/Auckland City in their quarterfinal matchup, and should they win, will face Real Madrid in the semifinals.

C.F. Pachuca (Mexico)

The reigning CONCACAF champions have seen better days. Though they have made it to the Copa MX final, they missed the Apertura playoffs and haven’t quite looked the same since their CONCACAF triumph back in late April. They’ve lost young superstar Hirving Lozano since then, but they have added Keisuke Honda who has been stellar in somewhat limited playing time this season.

Victor Guzmán scored eight goals in league play, and they have added Edson Puch, who has been a bit disappointing in limited minutes so far for the Tuzos. Liga MX teams have always struggled in this tournament, and the expectation this time around is just to win their first game against Wydad. Anything beyond that, like a win over Gremio in the semis, would be a huge bonus.

Wydad Casablanca (Morocco)

Fans might remember a team from Casablanca making a dramatic run to the final a few years ago; but that was Raja, Wydad’s crosstown rival. The African champions have had a very slow start domestically, sitting 11th out of 16th in the Moroccan League right now. But alongside those early season troubles, they were dominant in the CAF Champions League, winning their group before defeating knocking out reigning African champions Mamelodi Sundowns and continental giants Al-Ahly en route to the title.

Pachuca will have to play well to beat these guys, but Wydad will be missing one thing in Abu Dhabi: Their crowd. There are not many atmospheres that can match 60,000+ fans packed into the Mohamed V Stadium, and Wydad dominated teams time and time again at home. Unfortunately for them, they won’t be at home next week, and I’m not sure they can handle Pachuca without that boost from the crowd.

Gremio (Brazil)

The final team to qualify for the tournament, Gremio were nothing short of dominant in their Copa Libertadores run. The stingy defense gave up just three goals over the final eight knockout games, and Luan dismantled team after team en route to eight goals in the tournament, including a crucial golazo in the final.

The CONMEBOL representative hasn’t won the tournament since 2012, but Gremio have as good a chance as any to knock off Real Madrid. In addition to being a well rounded team, they’ve got all the x-factors with them. They’re used to long travel, they’re flaming hot at the moment, and they’ll even get an extra day of rest before the final if they can get there.

Real Madrid (Spain)

What introduction do they need? The two time reigning victors of the UEFA Champions League, the reigning Club World Cup champions, and reigning La Liga champions. Yeah, those guys. Obviously they’re the favorites to win it all, with a slew of stars that would make the World XI jealous.

Last year, the giants were tested in the final by their Japanese hosts, and needed a rescue from Cristiano, who scored a hat-trick to guide them to victory in extra time. Can they be stopped this year? Probably not, but anything can happen in a one game scenario, as we saw a year ago.

The Bracket

Below is the full bracket for the competition, which starts December 6th and will wrap up on December 16th.