MANCHESTER, England — Few would have expected Real Madrid to be competing for the Club World Cup title before the team’s unlikely run to Champions League glory last season.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team needed dramatic comebacks to defeat Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City before beating Liverpool in the final last May.
It was further proof of Madrid’s ability to produce on the biggest stage, and it means the Spanish powerhouse gets another opportunity to shine when the seven-team Club World Cup kicks off Wednesday in Morocco.
Madrid is aiming to be crowned club world champion for a record-extending eighth time.
The 14-times Champions League winner is the overwhelming favorite to do just that with Copa Libertadores champion Flamengo the only team that looks capable of beating the odds in Morocco.
While the Seattle Sounders can dream of a historic victory, they have already earned a place in the record books by becoming the first MLS team to qualify for the Club World Cup.
The Associated Press looks at some of the key issues ahead of the tournament.
No other team can compare to Madrid’s record in the Champions League and the same applies on the world stage.
Its recent dominance in Europe — lifting the Champions League trophy five times in eight years — has made it a regular at the Club World Cup, which it has gone on to win in 2014 and from 2016-18.
It is hard to see that sequence being halted in this year’s tournament, even if Real’s priorities are to successfully defend its Champions League and Spanish league titles.
ENDING EUROPE’S DOMINANCE
If any team can topple Real, it’s Flamengo, but the weight of history is against the Brazilians.
The previous nine tournaments were won by European teams, with another Brazilian team, Corinthians, the last to take the title back to South America. That broke a five-year run of European victories.
Perhaps the hiring of a European coach in Vitor Pereira, from Portugal, can be the difference for the Copa Libertadores champion.
Pereira would make himself a club icon if he could.
This would only be Flamengo’s second world championship title after beating Liverpool in the Intercontinental Cup final in 1981.
In 2019, Flamengo came close to winning the trophy when it took Liverpool to extra time in the final.
SOUNDERS MAKE HISTORY
The Seattle Sounders vs. Real Madrid. That potential matchup is the stuff dreams are made of and it could become reality if the MLS team progresses to the semifinals.
But Seattle has already made history, just by qualifying for the tournament after winning the CONCACAF Champions League last May.
It is an underdog in Morocco and few would give it any hope of overcoming Madrid if the two teams meet. But perhaps it can be inspired by the host nation, which confounded expectations by reaching the semifinals of the World Cup in Qatar last month.
Either way, it is a remarkable achievement for the Sounders, who before getting a shot at Madrid will face either Al Ahly or Auckland City.
LATEST SAUDI STATEMENT
While all the attention has been on Al Nassr in recent weeks because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival, it is another team from Saudi Arabia that will be mixing it up on the world stage.
Al-Hilal is the country’s most successful team, having won 18 titles and four Asian Champions League titles, and could further raise the profile of Saudi soccer with some strong performances in the tournament, including a potential semifinals match against Flamengo.
That would set the stage for the latest Saudi statement after the national team produced the shock of the World Cup by beating eventual champion Argentina in the group stage.
If FIFA has its way, it is only a matter of time before the Club World Cup is totally revamped.
Gianni Infantino, the president of world soccer’s governing body, wants an expanded tournament of possibly 24 or 32 teams to be played during the summer, more akin to the World Cup.
That will not happen until 2025 at the earliest, which means a midseason event, with only a small number of teams, will continue for the time being.
A tournament that has traditionally been pushed down the list of priorities for European teams may finally become more worthy of its name when eventually expanded.
Only then might it become one of the most coveted trophies in the sport.