x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Al Sadd dream of Club World Cup showdown with Barcelona

The Asian champions could go head-to-head with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta as Japan host event staged by UAE in last two years.

Al Sadd players celebrate with the trophy after winning the AFC Champions League football final last month.
Al Sadd players celebrate with the trophy after winning the AFC Champions League football final last month.

Asian champions Al Sadd have the carrot of setting up a Club World Cup semi-final with Barcelona as the tournament returns to Japan for the first time since 2008 after the last two editions of the tournament were held in Abu Dhabi.

European champion Barcelona and South American champion Santos are the seeded teams and enter at the semi-final stage, which begins from December 15 but Al Sadd, the Qatari side, will carry the hopes of Asian and know victory in their opening game against Tunisia's Esperance on Sunday will set up a dream last-four match against Lionel Messi et al.

The Qataris earned their spot among the world's elite when they upset Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on penalties in the South Koreans' own backyard last month, capping a remarkable run to the Asian title that few had predicted.

Central to continental glory - the second time the team from Doha has been crowned Asia's finest - was their cohesion and defensive resilience. They also have pace to burn in flying winger Nadir Belhadj.

The bedrock of the side are no-nonsense captain Abdullah Koni and his partner in central defence, the South Korean Lee Jung-Soo, both virtual ever-presents in Al Sadd's AFC Champions League campaign.

Qatari international Koni said in the emotional aftermath of final glory in South Korea that the lack of a superstar was Al Sadd's strength.

"Thank God we don't have an important player in our team. All are the same. Each one respects another one, and each one works for another one," he said. "We don't have someone like (Barcelona's Lionel) Messi in our team. We are 11. Even the coach, the players, everybody is important. No one is more important than another."

Koni, 32, whose side takes on the African champions Esperance on December 11 at the seven-team Club World Cup, which features the winners of each continent, knows few will expect his side to go far in Japan.

"It will be very difficult, but we are a young team. We have to learn, we have to prepare and we also have to fight," he said.

Few would dispute that the Qataris know how to scrap - least of all Suwon Bluewings.

The showpiece Champions League semi-final first leg between Al Sadd and the South Koreans descended into an all-out brawl that involved players and coaches from both sides and briefly halted the game.

Al Sadd forwards Mamadou Niang and Abdul Kader Keita were handed one-match bans and missed the second leg, making the Qataris' 2-1 aggregate victory even more impressive.

"As you've witnessed through our games, our performances are based on the pattern of strong defence and counter-attack," said Koni's fellow defensive stalwart Lee.

"Mamadou Niang, who arrived this season, is the key player and Kader Keita as well because they can hold the ball up front. Once we do our job in defence, they do their job of scoring goals. It's that simple."

The African duo – Niang is a Senegalese international and Keita plays for the Ivory Coast – rely on service from Algerian Belhadj, the rapid wingback/winger who impressed in the English Premier League with Portsmouth.

On his day he can trouble the world's best and it would be no surprise if he were to make a return to England, if press reports are to be believed.

In the aftermath of his side's dramatic penalty shoot-out win against Jeonbuk, Al Sadd coach Jorge Fossati said the Qatari underdogs were looking to do far more in Japan than just make up the numbers.

Eyeing a date with Barcelona, the Uruguayan tactician told AFP that a high-profile clash against one of history's greatest club sides would be "a wonderful thing".

sports@thenational.ae