Yokohama: European champion Chelsea will welcome a chance to rebound from a disappointing showing in both the Premier and Champions Leagues when it travels to Japan for the Club World Cup starting Thursday.
Chelsea coach Rafa Benitez is enduring a difficult return to the Premier League after two years, with the fans against him and the team underperforming. The Dec. 6-16 tournament is a chance to improve the fortunes of the team he inherited from the fired Roberto Di Matteo last month.
The Club World Cup features the champion clubs from FIFA's six confederations, plus a team from the host nation. New Zealand's Auckland City will face Japan's Sanfrecce Hiroshima in a playoff Thursday, with the winner advancing to the quarterfinals. Chelsea and Brazil's Corinthians have a bye to the semifinals.
Given the plight of his team, Chelsea midfielder Oscar says the Club World Cup takes on greater importance.
"It's very important," Oscar told FIFA.com. "It gives you the chance to say you're the champions of the world. Barcelona took it very seriously last year and we'll do the same. But it won't be easy. I know Corinthians well and they're a very strong side, well organized. And they will be desperate to win."
Benitez, who said he wasn't sure if he will see out his contract after a 3-1 loss to West Ham on Saturday, has had success at the Club World Cup. He led Inter Milan to the title in 2010 and reached the final with Liverpool in 2005 and some have speculated a strong showing in Japan may be the only thing that will save his job.
Chelsea booked its place in the Club World Cup by winning the Champions League crown in May when striker Didier Drogba scored the decisive penalty in a shootout against Bayern Munich. Drogba has since departed in a makeover that has brought in the youthful talent of Oscar and Eden Hazard to complement the veteran stars John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard.
Corinthians won this tournament in 2000 and the South American champions will have two players who have already won the title in left-back Fabio Santos and midfielder Danilo. Both were champions with Sao Paulo in 2005, when their final opponents were a Liverpool side coached by Benitez.
Coach Tite is now in his second spell at Corinthians, returning in the second half of 2010. That continuity has enabled him to lay a solid foundation and introduce a clearly defined system.
Midfielder Paulinho, who is establishing himself for Brazil, will be a key player, as will Peruvian striker Paolo Guerrero.
CONCACAF champion Monterrey of Mexico is back for a second consecutive appearance and will be looking to improve on last year's fifth-place finish. Among the key players are up-and-coming defender Severo Meza, who impressed in a June friendly against Brazil, and forward Aldo De Nigris.
In addition to their Mexican stars, Monterrey has a host of South American talent including Argentineans Cesar Delgado and Neri Cardozo, Ecuador's Walter Ayovi and Chilean Humberto Suazo.
Egypt's Al Ahly will be taking part in this tournament for the fourth time. The African champions will rely on Egyptian stars Mohamed Aboutrika and Gedo. Representing Oceania, Auckland City can boast the most-capped New Zealander of all time in captain Ivan Vicelich.
Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai will feature several members of the South Korean national team, including Lee Keun-ho, Kim Shin-wook and Kwak Tae-hwi, while Japan's representative Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the last to qualify after winning the recently concluded 2012 J-League, has in its ranks J-League player of the year Hisato Sato and national team goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.