Club World Cup no refuge for Benitez
TOKYO - Agence France-Presse
AFP photoChelsea's Rafael Benitez goes into the Club World Cup desperate for results and silverware but he will be acutely aware of the 2010 edition, when he was sacked just days after leading Inter Milan to glory.
After two draws and a loss critics are circling Benitez, who replaced the popular Roberto di Matteo last month and whose team also face the prospect of becoming the first Champions League holders to exit at the group stage.
Benitez will take a full-strength squad to Japan, where the intercontinental contest kicks off on Thursday with a preliminary match between Oceania title-holders Auckland City and Japan's J-League winners Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Chelsea, who won Europe's Champions League for the first time under di Matteo, and Copa Libertadores winners Corinthians of Brazil enter at the semi-final stage starting on December 12.
The London side will play either Mexican club Monterrey or Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai, while Corinthians will face the winners of Egyptian outfit Al Ahly's game against Auckland or Hiroshima.
But the bitter experience of 2010 puts Benitez in an unenviable position in Japan, knowing that even victory is unlikely to turn around his fortunes at Stamford Bridge, while defeat will inevitably crank up the pressure.
Comparisons are striking with two years ago, when Benitez joined European champions Inter after the departure of Jose Mourinho but struggled to convince their fans and went into the Club World Cup under pressure.
A 3-0 victory over Tout Puissant Mazembe in the Abu Dhabi final should have earned him credit, but Benitez used the post-match press conference to call for "respect and assistance" from the club -- and was sacked five days later.
Now Benitez, hired on an interim basis by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, finds himself targeted by boos and speculation about the sack, and the return of ex-manager Avram Grant as an adviser, after less than a fortnight in charge.
He was also hit by a broadside from Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, a long-time adversary, who called him "very lucky" for inheriting a team which could win him a trophy within days of his appointment.
"Rafa Benitez is very lucky because on his CV in two weeks' time he could have two Club World Championships to his name -- and (he had) nothing to do with the teams," Ferguson said.
Benitez's Liverpool team lost the 2005 Club World Cup final 1-0 to Sao Paulo in Yokohama, the venue for this year's decider, and Brazilian rivals again shape as his biggest threat.
Corinthians, also from Sao Paulo, in July mirrored Chelsea's achievement by becoming continental champions for the very first time, and as the first unbeaten team since 1978.
If, as expected, Chelsea and Corinthians meet in the final it raises the prospect of a match-up between national team-mates Oscar and Corinthians' midfield dynamo Paulinho.
"I respect Paulinho as a footballer, he's a very good player, but if we meet at the Club World Cup I will be doing everything I can to beat him," Oscar told the FIFA.com website.
Asian player of the year Lee Keun-Ho, who has delayed his military service to compete in Japan, will be looking to drive Ulsan Hyundai to further success after his key role in their first AFC Champions League victory.
Japanese international Hisato Sato, top scorer in the J-League, is the key man for Sanfrecce while seven-time African champions Al Ahly are competing for the fourth time for the world club title.
Auckland City's skipper Ivan Vicelich insists the only non-professional outfit competing at the tournament are not just making up the numbers, with $1 million up for grabs if they win the opening match.
"As an amateur club it's a big challenge and very difficult, but getting to the next stage for any team at this tournament is the aim, and we're no different," he said.
FIFA will trial two goal-line technology systems at the event, with a view to using one of them at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.