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Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008
Manchester United a near lock to lift Club World Cup
A trip to Japan just before the busiest time of the Premier League season would probably not be on Alex Ferguson's ideal itinerary, but there will never be a better chance for Manchester United to become world champions again.
United, which beat Palmeiras in 1999 to become the only British winner of the Club World Cup in any of its past or present incarnations, arrives in Tokyo on Monday to face a tournament lineup looking light on serious contenders.
European teams are always favored going into the event, but Liverpool and Barcelona have found out in recent years that the determination of South American sides is not to be underestimated.
The tournament's prestige is seen through different eyes on either side of the globe, and one man's inconvenience is another man's obsession.
Internacional concentrated all its efforts into "Project Tokyo" in 2006, scouting rival teams and resisting the usual Brazilian mid-season sale of players. When the Porto Alegre club mugged Barca in the final, the difference in preparation was plain to see.
But United's task this year has been made easier by an upset Copa Libertadores win for LDU Quito, leaving the modest Ecuadorean side as South America's representative.
Winger Luis Bolano has been tipped to shine in Japan, but considering the talent that has been repatriated across the continent in recent years, United can consider itself lucky to have avoided bigger fish like Boca Juniors or Sao Paulo.
LDU's comparative weakness may well open the door for a challenger from another continent, finally fulfilling the dream behind FIFA's enlargement of the tournament three years ago.
Unfortunately for Japan, that team is unlikely to be Gamba Osaka. Although Akira Nishino's men look capable of holding their own against the rest of the field, the realities of the draw mean United stands in the way of an appearance in the final.
There is no such obstacle for Al Ahly, however.
The Egyptians have won the African title four times this decade, and have a player of rare elegance and quality in Mohamed Aboutrika.
The midfielder is regularly described as the best player never to have left Africa, and if his team can get past the Mexicans of Pachuca on Saturday, a place in the final could be a real possibility.
Ultimately, however, second place seems the best any team can realistically aim for. The trophy looks as good as reserved for United, and with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez all bound for Japan, who could argue that it wouldn't be deserved?
Ferguson is unlikely to risk his star attackers for too long if everything goes according to plan, but if the manager decides to try out his stated ambition of accommodating all four in the same lineup, the results could be devastating.
Such a display would be a fitting finale for Japan, which bids farewell to the tournament it has hosted since it became the Toyota Cup in 1980.
The global demand for big names in soccer outposts means Japan cannot complain too much that the United Arab Emirates has been awarded the competition for the next two years, but it will return to these shores in 2011.
Whether Ronaldo will still be at United by that time remains to be seen. What looks more certain is that the Portuguese and his current teammates will etch their names onto yet another trophy in Yokohama next week.