Before they became famous the world over for their incidental part in the tragedy of last week’s Chapecoense air disaster, Colombia’s Atletico Nacional had established themselves as South America’s team of the year. The Medellin club were unquestionably the dominant side in the region in 2016 after lifting the Copa Libertadores in July and then reaching the final of the Copa Sudamericana just four months later.
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Unlike in Europe, where clubs play either the Champions League or the Europa League, clubs in South America can take part in both the region’s club competitions and Atletico dominated both.
Whether they have what it takes to beat Real Madrid in the Club World Cup, should both fulfil their billing as favourites and make the final, is another question.
European teams have won the Club World Cup for eight of the last nine years and the financial gulf between the continents means the Colombians will be hard-pushed to prevent Real making it nine in 10.
To make matters worse, they arrive in Japan having played more than 80 games already this season and without several of their best players, who were snapped up by wealthy European and Mexican clubs after their stellar season.
It is a tribute to the talent-spotting of the backroom staff and the coaching savvy of Reinaldo Rueda that Atletico remained competitive in the second half of the year — reaching the semi-finals of the Colombian league and the Copa Sudamericana final.
The latter was awarded to Chapecoense after most of the Brazilian team were killed in a plane crash as they approached Medellin airport last week.
Atletico lost the Intercontinental Cup 1-0 to AC Milan in 1989 in their only previous experience of FIFA’s premier club competition.
Rueda values attacking football and Atletico’s strength comes alive in their opponent’s half. Macnelly Torres and Alejandro Guerra are effective as creative attackers, and up front they have speedy right winger Orlando Berrio.
Highly rated 23-year old Miguel Borja, signed from Cortulua in June, has scored 39 goals so far this year, including five in four games during their triumphant march to the Copa Libertadores.
Borja looks set for a big-money transfer and he will not be alone in thinking of this tournament as one of the best shop windows possible.
Rueda may not be around much longer either. When asked to name his favourite piece of music on a talk show earlier this year, he chose the Champions League theme tune because, he said, his dream was to coach in Europe.