YOKOHAMA – Chelsea defender Gary Cahill admits he is only now beginning to realize how badly rival teams want to win the Club World Cup this week, and is taking nothing for granted in Thursday’s semifinal against Monterrey.
Chelsea faces the Mexicans at Nissan Stadium having qualified for the tournament as champions of Europe, where the title of world’s official No. 1 has traditionally carried significantly less prestige than it does in Latin America.
But with South American champions Corinthians arriving in Japan with a traveling support of thousands, and with four Brazilians among Chelsea’s squad, England international Cahill has reconsidered his opinions since touching down at Narita airport earlier this week.
“Since we have been over here we have realized how big it is,” the 26-year-old said on Wednesday. “We’ve got some Brazilians in our squad and it’s absolutely huge for them. I saw the send-off they got from the airport and it’s amazing.
“It has sunk in now, I think, how big it is for us, and we are looking to do really well. It’s an opportunity to win a cup, and that’s what you sign for big clubs to do.”
Chelsea will have to find a way past CONCACAF champions Monterrey to earn a place against Corinthians in Sunday’s final, and Cahill is wary of the Mexicans’ versatility.
“I think they’re a good footballing team,” said Cahill, who joined Chelsea from Bolton Wanderers in January. “I think they get the ball down and play and they also have the option of playing long. They’ve got a big striker up there so they can play long and play off the second ball, but they’ve got some talented footballers.
“It’s going to be a tough test for us. But I’m sure as well that we’ll know more about them this evening and tomorrow in preparation for the game, so we’ll be well aware of them.”
Chelsea heads into the match on the back of successive wins over Nordsjaelland and Sunderland, and Cahill credits interim manager Rafael Benitez for instilling greater defensive solidity since taking over from Roberto di Matteo late last month.
“Since he’s come in we have tightened up as a unit defensively, as a team, which has given us a platform to build on,” Cahill said of the Spaniard, who has previous experience of the Club World Cup with Liverpool and Inter Milan. “Obviously we have started getting some good results.
“When he first came in we played a lot of games so it was hard for him to get all his points across at first. But now I think the lads are fully aware of what’s expected and the strategy that he wants to adapt, so that everyone is aware of the job and what’s expected of them.”
Monterrey is taking part in the tournament for the second consecutive year having lost to Kashiwa Reysol in the quarterfinals last time out, but with Mexican soccer on a high after the men’s national team won gold at this summer’s London Olympics, manager Victor Vucetich is hoping to show his country’s strength.
“Mexico has been doing very well and growing and getting better,” Vucetich said. “Of course we did well at the Olympics but we also won the last Under-17 World Cup. Monterrey has also been doing well and I think this is a good chance to show what we can do.
“When we play in any tournament our goal is to become champions. We have cleared the first step and now this is the second. We are playing against the European champions so our motivation is even higher than in the last game.”
Monterrey beat Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai 3-1 in last Sunday’s quarterfinal to earn a crack at Chelsea, and Vucetich is well aware that getting past the Londoners will be no easy task.
“Chelsea is a very physical team and very skillful,” he said. “Their forwards are not so tall but they are very fast. They have a lot of very good players and they are capable of scoring goals tomorrow.
“But we also have some talented players of our own, and we will play the kind of game that we need to play. Of course we will respect our opponents, but we want to show what we can do.”
Mexico beat Brazil 2-1 at Wembley Stadium to win its first Olympic title in August, and Monterrey defenders Hiram Mier and Darvin Chavez are hoping to capitalize on the experience having been been part of the successful squad.
“We have been able to play to a very high level outside of Mexico, and that comes with the confidence that we gained from winning in London,” said Mier. “In this tournament the matches are very tough, but we want to fulfill our responsibilities and do our best.”