DOHA (AFP) – Fresh from securing their place in the last 16 of the Champions League, Liverpool’s involvement in the Club World Cup does not begin until next week but the fight for the right to face Jurgen Klopp’s men in Qatar started yesterday.
Competing as champions of the host country, Qatar’s Al-Sadd – coached by Barcelona great Xavi Hernandez – entertain minnows Hienghene Sport of New Caledonia in the tournament’s opening game at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium.
The winner of that game will advance to a tie against Mexico’s Monterrey, the CONCACAF Champions League winners, on Saturday. Whoever emerges from that match will then be able to look forward to a plum semi-final against Liverpool on December 18.
While Al-Sadd have a world famous coach and some notable players – former Atletico Madrid captain Gabi and the Algeria striker Baghdad Bounedjah – the story of Hienghene Sport is a remarkable one.
The amateur side from the French overseas territory are in Qatar, and dreaming of taking on Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and company, after winning Oceania’s Champions League in May.
“We have taken a route to get here, and even if it was at Oceania level, football is a worldwide game and we are allowed to dream. The dream is the reality,” said Hienghene coach Felix Tagawa on Tuesday.
Monterrey arrived in Qatar on Monday, giving them plenty of time to prepare for their opening game on Saturday, when Asian champions Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia will face African champions Esperance of Tunisia.
Those clubs will play off for the right to meet Copa Libertadores winners Flamengo in the first semi-final next Tuesday.
That same day, due to their hectic fixture schedule, Liverpool will be in action away to Aston Villa in the English League Cup, but Klopp and his biggest stars will have to skip that tie to come to Qatar to prepare for their Club World Cup semi-final the following day.
That game, and all matches in the latter stages of the tournament, will take place at the Khalifa International Stadium.
That is after Qatar postponed until next year the opening of Education City Stadium, its second newly built venue for the 2022 World Cup.
The venue was due to be inaugurated when it hosted Liverpool’s semi-final, but delays to the certification of the stadium by the authorities put paid to those plans.
Liverpool have never won the Club World Cup, although they lost the final in 2005 to Sao Paulo, and also twice lost the now defunct Intercontinental Cup, including to Flamengo in 1981.
The last six winners of the Club World Cup have all been European. However, the last English representative – Chelsea in 2012 – lost in the final.
This will be the penultimate tournament in its existing – and often-criticised – seven-team format before FIFA’s expanded 24-team Club World Cup starts in China in 2021.