Ronaldinho and his Atletico Mineiro team-mates kick-off their inaugural FIFA World Club Cup campaign against Moroccan outfit Raja Casablanca on Wednesday.
2013 has been a good year for football in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerias; after Atletico lifted the Copa Libertadores in July, rivals Cruzeiro were crowned national league champions earlier this month.
Now, Atletico have the chance to cap an excellent few months by emulating Corinthians' global success last year and lift the trophy most coveted by South American clubs.
There is more news coming out of the Brazilian club's training camp about the impending exit of coach Cuca to China rather than this afternoon's semi-final, which perhaps indicates the tag of “favourites” the continental champions have become so accustomed to wearing.
After Bayern's comprehensive 3-0 dispatching of Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande on Tuesday, the incentive to meet Pep Guardiola and Co. in the final is enormous.
Raja, for their part, are doing their best to stir the pot. On Monday, Vivien Mabide attempted to stoke the fires with some rather derogatory comments about Ronaldinho, which more stated the obvious than drew a pitch fork.
“Ronaldinho is no longer the Ronaldinho of Barcelona,” Mabide told reporters.
The 33-year-old World Cup winner laughed it off, but showed in training he still has the ability to turn a sporting contest into his own personal entertainment stage, like a ball juggling gladiator satisfying the demands of a vibrant crowd.
But The Side That Cuca Built has much more to it than the veteran playmaker. Technically balanced and exciting to watch they can count on the defensive solidity of goalkeeper Victor and central defensive partnership Marcos Rocha and Leo Silva.
And supporting Ronaldinho in Atletico's attacking quartet are Fernandinho, Jo and Diego Tardelli, the latter two having earned national call-ups.
Atletico have the technical brilliance to take their hosts apart. They dealt with the pressure of fans' expectations in the Libertadores and must do so again against Raja to set up a meeting with the European champions this Saturday.
During their successful continental campaign earlier this year, a recurring theme was Atletico snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, primarily thanks to Victor's heroics between the goalposts.
Now, they must use that same psychological steel to overcome nerves against a team that will have the fans in their corner, especially as everyone in Brazil is expecting the Minas club to reach the final and to do so with aplomb.
But against Raja and then Bayern, potentially, three days later, two opposite game plans must be adopted. Against Raja it is imperative Atletico press from the off and take the game to an opponent who is likely to “park the bus.”
Should they come up against the German outfit, even as huge underdogs, it is unlikely the Brazilians will adopt a completely defensive stance. It isn't in Cuca's DNA.
But they will have to adapt and be more tactically aware than in Wednesday's encounter.
Cuca had long been seen in Brazil as the unluckiest manager around, forever doomed to be runner-up. This year's triumph has shaken off those shackles as he prepares to face the greatest challenge of his 15-year managerial career.
And that's when Ronaldinho's experience and intelligence can come to the fore as a huge asset for club and coach. He may have lost a shade of pace over the last seven or eight years, but the mind of a genius lives on.
In a contest where the stakes are so high—the crown of world club champions—Atletico will count on not only the jaw-dropping abilities of their talisman but his knowledge of facing such renowned opponents regularly.
In short, they will count on Ronaldinho not letting the occasion get to him—of being the leader and not only the entertainer.
The same Ronaldinho? Of course not. It's likely he's picked up a thing or two in his twilight.
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