x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A Barca upset is not out of reach

The Concacaf federation, which encompasses North and Central America as well as the Caribbean islands and celebrates its 48th birthday next Friday, will be pleased with the progress made as a half-centenary approaches.

The Concacaf federation, which encompasses North and Central America as well as the Caribbean islands and celebrates its 48th birthday next Friday, will be pleased with the progress made as a half-centenary approaches. Formed in 1961, nine years before Mexico hosted their first of two world cups, the widespread belief is that the confederation is slowly catching the continental powerhouses of South America (Conmebol) and Europe (Uefa).

At international level, football has grown exponentially in both the United States and Mexico, Concacaf's two most-populated countries. The pair are ranked 14th and 15th respectively. The Mexicans complemented their two world cup quarter-final appearances - both of which came on home soil in 1970 and 1986 - with a successful Confederation Cup campaign in 1999, again held in front of their own fans in Mexico City and Guadalajara.

The US, having finishing third at the first World Cup in 1930, initially struggled to capitalise on their success and failed to qualify for 10 of the 11 World Cups between 1954 and 1986. However, since Italia 90', they have been omnipresent on football's global stage and finished in the quarter-finals in 2002. Meanwhile, in last year's Confederation Cup they defeated European Champions Spain to reach the final, losing narrowly to Brazil.

Domestically, too, the game is growing. Atlante, the Mexican First Division side who earned the right to compete at this month's Club World Cup after winning the Concacaf Champions League, are only the eighth-best club in the region according to the International Federation of Football History and Statistics. Their arrival in Abu Dhabi offers a chance to show a competitive edge many might not expect from a confederation known more for David Beckham than for producing swash-buckling, spirited "soccer".

Based in the resort city of Cancun, Atlante coach Jose Cruz admitted earlier this week that the beaches of the UAE were comforting for his "Iron Colts". And they appeared decidedly more at home last night as they defeated Auckland City 3-0 in front of 7,222 fans, many of whom turned up sporting sombreros and performing Mexican waves. The result was expected and thus not so much proof of Concacaf's strength, but rather a potentially tricky test that they managed to comfortably overcome.

Cruz's charges are bidding to topple the monopoly and become the first side outside Europe and South America to reach a Club World Cup final. The best performance from any Concacaf team at club football's elite competition is third place, a feat achieved by Mexico's Necaxa in 2000 and again by Saprissa of Costa Rica in 2005. Their quest started successfully against Auckland, but now they face the daunting task of beating Barcelona. For all their dominance against the New Zealanders, Atlante know that on Wednesday they will return to being unknown underdogs.

Midfielder Santi Solari has first-hand experience of the Catalans' quality having played for both Atletico and Real Madrid, while goalkeeper Federico Vilar, an Argentine international known as "The Chief" knows all about compatriot Lionel Messi. Yet coach Cruz will be confident: his side more than held their own against Spanish opposition in last summer's pre-season Peace Cup and have evidently improved organisationally since then, despite a month-long hiatus from competitive football.

Few can see anything other than a Barcelona win on Wednesday, but there is undoubtedly potential for an upset - and Atlante will be intent on doing just that. gmeenaghan@thenational.ae