YOKOHAMA – River Plate manager Marcelo Gallardo has invited Barcelona to hit his team with its best shot in Sunday’s Club World Cup final — and believes it can withstand the one-two-three punch of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
South American champion River takes on European title-holder Barcelona for the world crown in Yokohama with doubts surrounding the fitness of star Barcelona forwards Messi and Neymar, after both missed Thursday’s 3-0 semifinal win over Guangzhou Evergrande.
Brazilian Neymar is recovering from a groin injury while Argentine wizard Messi woke up on Thursday morning with renal colic, a type of abdominal pain commonly caused by kidney stones.
Both players trained in Barcelona’s final practice at Nissan Stadium on Saturday evening and manager Luis Enrique described their condition as “improving,” while refusing to be drawn on whether they would play any part in the final.
But Gallardo is confident of River’s chances regardless of who takes the field for Barcelona, and believes his side can stop the Spanish giants from claiming their third Club World Cup title in seven years.
“I do hope that those two players will play tomorrow,” said Gallardo. “I understand that two out of the three may or may not play, but I hope all three star players start tomorrow. They are all among the world’s top players, and I hope that they put out their best team because that would make it a game worthy of the occasion.
“I can’t wait for the match to start. I think it’s going to be a very meaningful game, and one that we have all dreamed about. It will be the culmination of all we have worked for.”
Luis Enrique has ample firepower at his disposal even if Messi and Neymar fail to prove their fitness, with Suarez scoring all three goals in Barcelona’s semifinal win over Asian champions Guangzhou.
But Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta has warned his teammates not to underestimate Argentine side River, which will have the backing of an estimated 15,000 traveling fans in Yokohama.
“What we are worried about is their defense,” said Iniesta. “They are dangerous not because of one or two individuals but because they are a team. The main thing is that we pay attention and perform at 100 percent.
“It’s going to be complicated and difficult. It’s the same for both us and River because the game is a final. Whatever the tournament, a final is never easy. It’s going to be very intense. Our team is a great team and we are very good at controlling the ball. We won’t lose our focus.”
River has made a remarkable comeback since suffering its first-ever relegation to the Argentine second division in 2011, achieving promotion at the first time of asking and going on to capture the Copa Libertadores continental title in August this year.
“The players are prepared mentally,” said Gallardo, a former River player who also spent time in France with Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. “We have come a long way to get here, and now I want the players to enjoy the match.
“We need to enjoy it because this is a rare opportunity in everybody’s lives. I want them to have a good time and show what they can do.”
European teams have won seven of the last eight Club World Cup titles, but Luis Enrique rejected the notion that Sunday’s result is a foregone conclusion.
“We say that we have the better potential to win but we don’t know if that’s true or not until after the 90 minutes,” he said. “The Club World Cup is the tournament to decide the best team in the world and tomorrow we will know the answer.
“A final is important, whatever the final is. It’s going to be a tough match for both sides. We’ve both got this far and I don’t know who will win, but we will play our usual game and we want to be the best.”
River reached the final after beating J. League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima 1-0 in their semifinal in Osaka on Wednesday.
Sanfrecce and Guangzhou will contest the third-place playoff prior to the final, with Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu urging his players to dig deep for what will be their sixth game in 18 days.
“The players have competed in the J. League Championship and the Club World Cup in December, and physically and mentally we are reaching our limit,” said Moriyasu. “But over the whole season I think the tougher it has been, the more we have been able to show what we are made of. The players have really shown their mental strength.”
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