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Man Utd lead hunt for Club World Cup

Manchester United might be in the thick of another Premier League battle but they are eager to make the trek to Japan and fight for the right to be known as the world's best club.

sports Updated: Dec 09, 2008 09:17 IST

Manchester United might be in the thick of another Premier League battle but they are eager to make the trek to Japan and fight for the right to be known as the world's best club.

They qualified for the annual FIFA Club World Cup as Europe's representative after winning the Champions League, and join six other teams in the quest to add another title to their distinguished list of honours.

The last time an English team qualified for the tournament, now in the fourth year in its current format, Liverpool made the gruelling trip mid-season in 2005 only to lose 1-0 in the final to Brazilian powerhouse Sao Paulo.

Brazil aren't represented this year with South American hopes resting on Copa Libertadores winners Liga de Quito of Ecuador.

While the tournament gets underway with a preliminary round game on Thursday between Asian hope Adelaide United and Oceania qualifier Waitakere United of New Zealand, the Red Devils don't play until December 18.

They go straight to the semi-final as a seeded team, which will see them meet either Japan's Gamba Osaka or the winner of the Adelaide-Waitakere clash.

The other semi will involve Liga de Quito against the winner of a match between powerful Egyptian side Al Ahly or Mexico's Pachuca, the champions of Africa and Central America respectively.

Sir Alex Ferguson knows what it takes to win this competition, steering United to victory over Brazil's Palmeiras in 1999 when it was the Intercontinental Cup, which was fought between the top teams in Europe and South America.

And he's shown how seriously he's taking it this time by naming a full-strength 23-man squad, with all his big stars included with the exception of the injured Owen Hargreaves.

"We're going to Japan because we've won the Champions League and I hope we'll be playing in this (Club World Cup] for the next five years," said Ferguson.

"It's an achievement to just be involved. We're the only British team to have won it -- and I consider that to be one of the club's greatest achievements.

"There's now a different focus on the tournament and it's good that teams from Africa, Asia and elsewhere have a chance to take part.

"You can't stop progress and this is a progressive step. The quality of the game has improved tremendously all over the world. It means an extra game to what the club has had in the past, but I think that's important."

United fly in next Monday, following their match against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday.

Gamba Osaka, who won the AFC Champions League, are relishing a crack at United on home soil, but coach Akira Nishino is worried about their form after losing to Albirex Niigata 3-2 in the J-League on Saturday:

"It is difficult (to compete in the Club World Cup) if we cannot regain our best form," he said.

"It will be a really tough competition if we play like we did against Niigata. We must improve our game in every aspect. It's not appropriate for the representatives of Asia to play like this."

Liga de Quito come into the tournament on a high after beating Brazil's Fluminense on penalties to become the first club ever from tiny Ecuador to win the Copa Libertadores.

Much of their success was down to the heroics of veteran Jose Cevallos, who was Ecuador's goalkeeper at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

"Hopefully we can consolidate the growth of Ecuadorian football at all levels. We're just two games away from glory," he said of the tournament.

"All that matters is that we win, with or without penalties, both for ourselves and for Ecuador."

While South American and European teams have won all previous Club World Cups, Al Ahly could cause an upset after winning the African Champions League for a record sixth time.

First Published: Dec 09, 2008 09:15 IST