Preview: Players to watch, predictions, tactics, more

From Dec. 12 to Dec. 22, the top team from each continent will compete for the honour of being the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup champion in Saudi Arabia as the tournament kicks off on Tuesday between Al Ittihad and Auckland City.

Reigning champions Real Madrid were knocked out by Manchester City in the 2022-23 Champions League season, with the Premier League side representing Europe with strong backing to win. Meanwhile, can the likes of Fluminense, Al Ahly, Al Ittihad, Leon, Urawa Red Diamonds or Auckland City stage an upset?

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Before the action begins, our ESPN correspondents from around the world give you everything you need to know about each team, from tactics, players to watch, predictions and reasons they will — and won’t — win the tournament.

– Where they play: Egyptian Premier League (Egypt)
– How they reached Club World Cup: Winners of 2022-23 CAF Champions League
– First game: vs. Al-Ittihad OR Auckland City, Second-round game, Dec. 15

Under manager Marcel Koller, Ahly’s main threat comes from wide positions, where Percy Tau and the inventive Hussein El Shahat are the primary players to watch. The latter dovetails superbly with fullback Ali Maâloul, moving inside to allow the Tunisia international to overlap to great effect, while the influential Aliou Dieng maintains control in midfield.

Last season, winger Kahraba operated as a quasi-false nine, but the arrival of Borussia Dortmund’s Anthony Modeste — evidence of Ahly’s increasing appeal beyond Egyptian shores — represents a transition to a more defined attacking focal point, even if early showings (two goals in 10 appearances) have not been encouraging.

Percy Tau. He could have stagnated, having returned to Africa following an ineffectual spell with Brighton, but he’s instead reinvigorated his career at Ahly. Despite struggling in England, Tau’s movement and technique make him lethal for the Red Devils even if fitness concerns persist. He’s also a goal threat, with four in the first five matches of the Egyptian season, and the opener in June’s CAF Champions League final first-leg victory over Wydad.

This Ahly squad has considerable experience of high-pressure, high-stakes knockout games — they’ve won three of the last four African Champions Leagues — and boast considerable street smarts. They relish going toe-to-toe with the world’s top sides — witness their Club World Cup showdown with Real Madrid against Rabat in February, at least until their opponents upped the ante — and should enjoy some “home support” in Saudi Arabia.

While Ahly would love to become Africa’s first CWC winners, the chasm in quality to Europe’s finest surely remains too vast. As they learned last time, Ahly were blown away when Real Madrid moved into another gear, with the serial CAF champions conceding four times in a grueling second half. How will centre-back Mohamed Abdelmonem — imperious in Africa — cope with German Cano, let alone Erling Haaland?

Manchester City … sorry to be so predictable! Their recent Premier League form is a cause for concern, but City are a supreme unit and surely won’t miss out on the chance to conquer yet further new ground for the club by winning the intercontinental crown. City’s run of four League Cups between 2018 and 2021 demonstrated how importantly Pep Guardiola treats even the “minor” competitions, and it’s hard to imagine him allowing this slice of history to pass him by. — Ed Dove

– Where they play: Saudi Pro League (Saudi Arabia)
– How they reached Club World Cup: Winners of 2022-23 Saudi Pro League
– First game: vs. Auckland City, First-round game, Dec. 12

Al Ittihad won the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League title thanks to Nuno Espirito Santo’s textbook style of playing three men at the back, remaining compact and relying on wingbacks. The book has been ripped apart at the start of November, as Santo was sacked after a run of poor results. In came former River Plate boss Marcelo Gallardo, who set out to transform the team into a high-press machine while retaining a 3-5-2 formation in most cases, but moving playmaker Igor Coronado into a more advanced role behind attacking duo Karim Benzema and Abderrazak Hamdallah.

Fabinho. While Benzema is the undisputed star of the side, it will be the former Liverpool anchorman who will play a crucial role as the lynchpin of the team, providing a shield in front of defence and a base to build attacks, especially should they advance into the latter stages where the likes of Manchester City and Fluminense await.

None of the teams participating in the 2023 edition has as many Club World Cup winners in their squad than Al Ittihad. The experience of Benzema, N’Golo Kanté, Fabinho and Romarinho will be vital, while playing in front 40,000 local fans at the King Abdullah Sports City will also be a major advantage.

Since winning the league back in May, the club has undergone nonstop upheaval. They go into the Club World Cup having slipped down to fifth place in the league, with just two wins in their past nine games, and with a new manager who has been at the helm for one month.

Not since a Corinthians side featuring Romarinho upset Chelsea in 2012 has a non-European side won the Club World Cup. And while there is a lot to be excited about regarding Fluminense, Al Ittihad and Al Ahly, Manchester City will come into the tournament in pursuit of a title they have never won, and it is difficult to look beyond them for the winners. — Wael Jabir

– Where they play: Northern League (New Zealand)
– How they reached Club World Cup: Winners of 2023 OFC Champions League
– First game: vs. Al-Ittihad, First-round game, Dec. 12

Having topped the New Zealand league 13 times since its 2004 inception and won the OFC Champions League 11 times across that stretch, Auckland has established itself as the power of Oceania football. However, this domination over their rivals at a domestic and continental — New Zealand’s only professional football team, the Wellington Phoenix, plays in the Australian A-Leagues and Australia Cup — has also become something of an anchor on the Club World Cup stage.

Preferring to play a high-possession game week in and week out, the Kiwi side simply doesn’t have the personnel to do so at a Club World Cup level, and more of their appearances on this stage (six) have ended without them scoring a goal than them finding the net (four).

Cameron Howieson. A 15-time New Zealand international, as well as an All Whites representative at multiple junior World Cups and an Olympic Games, Howieson is a former Burnley youth prospect who has been with the Navy Blues since 2017 and now skippers the team. This tournament marks the 28-year-old’s third appearance at a Club World Cup with Auckland, and he’s hoping that the learning experience a young Auckland group experienced in a 3-0 loss against Al Ahly last year will place them in good stead for this campaign.

Because this is still football, and we live in a world where Leicester City can win the Premier League and Greece can win the European Championships, nothing can be completely ruled out until the actual games have been played. And remember: Auckland has staged upsets on this stage before, beating Moghreb Tétouan, ES Sétif, and Cruz Azul on the way to a third-place finish in 2014.

There are David and Goliath matchups, and then there’s whatever a semiprofessional side from New Zealand — which lost their National League grand final 2-0 to Wellington Olympic last month amid a club record three-game losing run — coming up against an Al Ittihad side playing at home and featuring Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté and Fabinho is.

This isn’t quite the same iteration of Auckland City that shocked the world in 2014, either, with the foreign and All Whites talent that bolstered their ranks harder to come by these days.

Manchester City is the obvious choice, but that’s boring. So let’s go with South American champions Fluminense to add a Club World Cup to their first Copa Libertadores title. — Joey Lynch

– Where they play: Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A (Brazil)
– How they reached Club World Cup: Winners of 2023 Copa Libertadores
– First game: winners of Al Ahly vs. Al-Ittihad OR Auckland City, Semifinals, Dec. 18

Coach Fernando Diniz has become a hero of football hipsters for the unorthodox way that he sets up his team. Fluminense play out boldly from the back, but as Diniz has long been at pains to insist, his side follow a different model from the Pep Guardiola idea. There are no set positions that someone has to fill, ensuring a ready option of angles for passes.

With Diniz, things are much more off the cuff, the players encouraged to find their own solutions. The team will often group itself around the ball on one flank and keep it there with intricate passing moves, or draw the opposition in before a sudden switch to the other wing. It is unstructured and it can be exciting, but it can also leave the team dangerously open when their moves break down.

Jhon Arias. Defensive midfielder Andre is on everyone’s wish list and veteran Argentine striker German Cano scores the goals — but the man who links the pair of them is probably the key element of the side. Stocky little Colombian Arias is nominally one of the wingers, but he can pop up anywhere and puts in a shift in midfield as well. Strong on the ball, excellent on the turn, quick and with an eye for a pass, he is Cano’s main supply line.

The Club World Cup seems more than anything a South American competition. It is highly prized in the continent, and Fluminense will surely have an edge in terms of motivation. This tournament is especially important because it is their first time — the grand old club had never won the Libertadores before, and because some of the key players (like Andre) will probably be moving on in January.

The goals against column can make uncomfortable reading. In the Libertadores semifinal, they could not cope with Ecuador’s World Cup striker Enner Valencia, and they can brace themselves for the clash with similarly talented strikers in the Club World Cup. At the end of an exhausting season, Fluminense might find that their method of play leaves the side too vulnerable.

Barring 1-0 defeats against ultra-defensive opposition in 2005, ’06 and ’12, this has always been Europe’s tournament, and it is impossible to look any place other than Manchester City for the likely winners. It is true that City have hit a run of poor form, but the little trip away could be exactly what they need to get back on track. — Tim Vickery

– Where they play: Liga MX (Mexico)
– How they reached Club World Cup: Winners of the 2023 Concacaf Champions League
– First game: vs. Urawa Red Diamonds, Second-round game, Dec. 15

Under up-and-coming manager Nicolas Larcamon, Leon are a tactically flexible side that can shift between a three or four-man backline. No matter formation their coach picks, chance creation and aggressively winning the ball back is of the utmost importance for the club that led the Liga MX regular season in shots, passes in the final third and crosses.

Ideally for Larcamon, his players will string together a long list of quick passes while going forward, and when out of possession, he’ll likely have his team press and win the ball back high up the field when needed.

Fidel Ambriz. Often sitting in the heart of the XI, 20-year-old midfielder Ambriz can do a bit of everything with key passes, shots and regaining possession off aerial duels. Selected as the winner of the Young Player Award for the 2023 Concacaf Champions League in June, Ambriz could help garner more reported interest from abroad if he has a strong showing this month.

With a manager like Larcamon that can make his teams greater than the sum of their parts, Leon won’t be afraid to be proactive against any opponents in the Club World Cup. They consistently create chances in the final third and can play with an immense amount of energy.

Although Larcamon should be praised for the success he’s gained at just 39 years of age, he does occasionally struggle with in-game management and substitutions. The Argentine manager is one of the brightest in the Concacaf region, but also one with room for improvement.

Manchester City. — Cesar Hernandez

– Where they play: English Premier League (England)
– How they reached Club World Cup: Winners of 2022-23 UEFA Champions League
– First game: vs. Leon OR Urawa Red Diamonds, Semifinals, Dec. 19

It hasn’t always been the case this season, but Manchester City under Guardiola want to control games. They want to keep the ball as much as they can. To help with that, Guardiola has developed a system in which he pushes a defender into midfield in possession.

Last season, it was usually John Stones, but Manuel Akanji and Rico Lewis can also do the job. Erling Haaland is a formidable goal scorer, and his attributes allow City to attack in lots of different ways. They can use the skill and technique of Phil Foden and Julián Álvarez to fashion chances in the box, or use Haaland’s pace and strength to go long. Even in a tough moment, they are a hard team to stop.

Julian Alvarez. Haaland is the obvious one, but City have also got World Cup winner Alvarez. Haaland tends to get most of the attention because of his astonishing numbers, but Alvarez has been quietly impressive in his 18 months at the club. He got 17 goals last season and has already reached eight so far this term as he begins to play a bigger role.

Apart from the fact that City, by almost every measure, are the best club team in the world, European sides usually win it. The European team have won the past 10 editions of the Club World Cup. Corinthians were the last team to break the cycle with a 1-0 win over Chelsea in Japan in 2012.

City are wobbling in the Premier League but the biggest obstacle to winning the Club World Cup is their schedule. By the time they arrive in Saudi Arabia, they will have already played 26 games. After returning to England, they will find themselves in the middle of the hectic winter fixture list. How Guardiola rotates his squad will be key.

Manchester City. — Rob Dawson

– Where they play: J1 League (Japan)
– How they reached Club World Cup: Winners of 2022 AFC Champions League
– First game: vs. Leon, Second-round game, Dec. 15

As most Japanese club teams do, with fluidity and high intensity. Urawa’s 4-2-3-1 formation often switches to a 4-4-2 or even a 4-2-4 depending on the opponents, as well as their intent at a particular juncture of a match. The attacking midfield trio often interchange in a bid to drag opposition defenders out of position and, at times, even make their way to more advanced positions than the main striker, who has primarily been José Kanté — a proven scorer, but someone also capable of dropping deep to contribute in the build-up — this season.

For all the license to roam most of the starting XI are afforded, everything the Reds do is built on a strong core of centre-backs Alexander Scholz and Marius Hoibraten, and the central midfield duo of Ken Iwao and Atsuki Ito.

Yoshio Koizumi. It is tempting to pick Shoya Nakajima given he has recently returned to Japan following several seasons in Europe, including time with Porto — but the 29-year-old is yet to force his way into the Urawa starting XI. Instead, Koizumi is a dynamic and skillful playmaker who can often escape the clutches of defenders, and his presence has arguably made it even more difficult for the greater-credentialled Nakajima to get playing time.

Japanese clubs have historically enjoyed performed well in the Club World Cup, with Kashima Antlers giving Real Madrid an almighty scare in the 2016 final, while there have been a trio of third-place finishes. Likewise, Urawa have a penchant to rise to the occasion and they will not be easy to beat given how well-organised they are.

This Urawa side is simply too erratic. In 2023, they’ve had 14 and 11-game unbeaten streaks but also suffered six losses in seven games recently before arresting the slump with back-to-back victories. They will also be without injured captain Hiroki Sakai, a veteran of three FIFA World Cups with Japan who also was named Most Valuable Player in last season’s AFC Champions League despite playing in the less-glamorous position of right-back.

While it would be nice for some variety — along with an underdog success story — it is almost impossible to look past Europe’s representatives in each edition. Especially this year, when it comes in the form of a certain Manchester City. — Gabe Tan

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