The likelihood of Arabian Gulf League champions Al Jazira crossing paths with record Champions League holders Real Madrid became a distinct possibility as the two clubs were set on a collision course with each other in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup.
The official draw for the competition – being staged in the UAE in December – was held in the UAE capital on Monday.
Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid will enter the tournament at the last four stage and could be waiting for Jazira at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium on Wednesday, December 13, should Henk ten Cate’s men win their opening two games.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi lift the curtain on the 14th edition of the tournament when they face the Oceania Football Confederation champions Auckland City at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Wednesday, December 6.
The reigning AGL champions will be dreaming of facing the legendary Los Blancos a week later in their own city but will first need to overcome Ramon Tribulietx’s men – who have won the OFC Champions League title for the last seven seasons running.
Negotiate that hurdle and they will then need to beat the champions of Asia – Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, Iran’s Persepolis, China’s Shanghai SIPG or Japan’s Urawa Reds – for a shot at Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Co.
“It’s the cherry on the cake,” Ten Cate said at the draw, held at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.
“Winning the championship was very nice but competing in a tournament like this for a club like Al Jazira is the top achievement of all time.”
Dutchman Ten Cate was assistant to compatriot Frank Rijkaard when Rea’s great rivals Barcelona won the Champions League in 2006, but had moved to take charge of Ajax before competing in the Club World Cup that year, so much like his Jazira players, will be experiencing the competition for the first time. And he is hugely excited.
“I think it’s going to be amazing, if we are capable of winning the first game and going on to the next stage,” he added.
“I wasn’t here with Barcelona, so for me it’s the first time to participate and I’m looking forward to it.
“It’s nice we could play Madrid but the best thing is playing two more games if you win the first. This is what we have to focus on. Whether it’s possibly Madrid, the most important thing is to qualify. This is our biggest aim.
“If you win the first game you play two extra games and that would be very nice for everyone at the club, the players and me. Especially the supporters. Focus on the first match and forget about the rest.”
Ten Cate admits he hasn’t studied opening opponents Auckland yet, but he is certain his team will be much better than the one that has stuttered in the opening weeks of the new UAE season – earning just two wins from five games in all competitions.
“I think they (Auckland) hope they can play us now because we are not in the best shape,” he joked.
Los Blancos are coming to the UAE in December.
“The game is December 6 and a lot can happen in this time. I assure you though that we will be way better in December.”
No team has ever retained the Club World Cup trophy, which Los Blancos can do if they lift the title in Abu Dhabi on December 16.
They beat Kashima Antlers 4-2 after extra time in Yokohama 10 months ago to win it for a second time after their 2014 triumph. And after becoming the first team to retain the Champions League last season, Real director and former striker Emilio Butragueno insists they are chasing history again.
“History – it’s another challenge,” said the 54-year-old Spaniard who scored 165 goals in 454 games in the famous white shirt in a glittering 12-year career at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“I remember at the beginning of last season everybody said no team has been able to win the Champions League two consecutive years and we were able to do it. And then we come here to try and break history as well.”
But Butragueno, capped 69 times by La Roja, said chasing rivals Barcelona’s record of three Club World Cup titles was not on their agenda.
“No. Every time we play a competition we try to win it regardless of other cups,” he said.
“We are delighted with our track record and this is an opportunity to win again and to win more titles – that’s the goal.”
Despite the honour of being called the world champions of club football, Europe’s powerhouses don’t attach much significance to the Club World Cup compared to the Champions League and their own domestic titles.
Experienced campaigner: Ten Cate.
But Butragueno insists Real will take the tournament seriously, despite hosting Barca in the first Clasico of the La Liga season four days after the Club World Cup final.
He said: “First of all we have to be focused on the semi-final. But we have to play each game at a time, so when we come here we’ll be focused on this tournament and after that we’ll have time to think about La Liga.
“It’s always difficult. We have to wait about our opponents. But this competition is difficult because it’s in the middle of the season, we are going to play on Saturday, come here and play Wednesday and so we have to prepare properly of course and we have to play at our best if we want to qualify for the final.
“Every game for us is important. Because while the expectations are very high always when we are talking about Real Madrid, we have to play well, we have to win every match.
“This is an important competition for us. We won the Champions League, that’s why we are here, so we’ll do our best of course to win again.
“Football is 90 minutes, anything can happen. Of course we have a very good team. We have very talented players, but 90 minutes anything can happen.”