Barcelona will look to round off a glorious year when their bid for the FIFA World Club Cup gets underway on Thursday morning.
The Catalans are determined to claim the world champions moniker after already winning La Liga and the Champions League in 2011 with their dazzling brand of pass-and-move football.
Their first challenge at the seven-team tournament arrives in the shape of a semi-final against Qatari outfit Al Sadd, who have not exactly been making positive noises about their chances of causing an almighty upset.
Coach Jorge Fossati even joked that he might try to field 15 or 16 men to level the playing field – and the latest odds certainly reflect the Uruguayan’s pessimism.
Barca are at a very uncharitable 1/25 in bwin’s 3Way football betting market, with the draw priced at 11/1 and a victory for the Asian champions available at a lengthy 28/1.
While they are rightly expected to book a final showdown with Santos of Brazil – who were 3-1 winners over Kashiwa Reysol earlier today – there are several factors at work which suggest they might not have it all their own way.
Barca boss Pep Guardiola is expected to ring the changes after his side’s energy-sapping 3-1 win over great rivals Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Saturday.
Admittedly, the prospect of facing replacements such as David Villa, Javier Mascherano and Thiago – not to mention the latest string of La Masia artisans who beat BATE Borisov 4-0 in the Champions League recently – is hardly likely to have Al Sadd rubbing their hands with glee.
But the tournament is being staged in Japan and Barca’s players barely had time to toast their El Clasico triumph before boarding a draining 13-hour flight across the globe.
Indeed, Mascherano revealed that the squad have been suffering with jet lag, unlike Al Sadd, who have had plenty of time to acclimatise and already have a 2-1 quarter-final win over Esperance Tunis under their belts.
“It’s difficult to sleep well,” said the former Liverpool midfielder after training in Yokohama. “We are trying to adapt with (sleeping) tablets but it’s difficult.
“We know the team from Qatar is very physical. They’re strong and have had more time to prepare. We played on Saturday and arrived (in Japan) after the game, 13 hours flying. It’s not easy to beat a team like (Al Sadd) in this kind of a tournament.”
It is interesting that Mascherano felt sufficiently concerned about this issue to speak out about it ahead of a match which Barca are such overwhelming favourites to win.
I’m not saying the Blaugrana are rattled or getting their excuses in early, but perhaps the Argentine is aware that the problems he describes could further disrupt the fluency of what will be an already unfamiliar starting XI.
It is also worth noting that Al Sadd can call upon the likes of former Ligue 1 top scorer Mamadou Niang, ex-Portsmouth defender Nadir Belhadj and winger Kader Keita, who was a stalwart of some of Lyon’s great European campaigns in recent times.
The Catalans have scored 30 of their 50 league goals in the first halves of their matches – a statistic which makes more Barca goals before the interval than after it worth a look at 31/20.
Consider for a moment that Barca’s 3Way odds are comparable to those you would expect when any half-decent international team has a home match with San Marino or Andorra, for example.
So is it completely unreasonable to expect the 2009 World Club Cup winners to fall short of the kind of hammering often meted out to these famous minnows?
In a match where finding real value is tricky – and considering the factors outlined above – backing any team to win by exactly three goals difference is among the best options at odds of 31/10.
Punters joining bwin.com receive a free £25 bet and placing it on this particular selection would bring returns of £102.50 if successful.
Guardiola’s men to win either 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0 also seems reasonable at 7/4, but the former looks preferable as it factors in a possible moment of individual brilliance from Niang or one of his team-mates against an under-strength and maybe even under-the-weather Barca rearguard.
As ever with David v Goliath clashes, though, there will be plenty of football betting fans looking for short-priced selections on which to have a sizeable wager.
Without doubt, backing Barca to be winning at half-time and full-time, which has happened in 11 of their last 20 La Liga matches, is the safest play at 11/50.
After all, the Catalans have scored 30 of their 50 league goals in the first halves of their matches – a statistic which also makes more Barca goals before the interval than after it worth a look at 31/20.
Alternatively, Barca to win to nil is priced at 9/20 and a triumph by three or more goals can be backed at 12/25.
All that’s left now is for me to sit back and watch in horror as Al Sadd suddenly morph into San Marino and allow Villa and company to rack up a cricket score….
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