Barcelona are likely to face Luiz Felipe Scolari’s full repertoire of spoiling tactics when they meet the Brazilian coach’s Guangzhou Evergrande team in their Club World Cup semi-final on Thursday.
The European champions will be without injured striker Neymar against their Asian counterparts, who are in the semi-finals for the second time in three years following Sunday’s shock 2-1 win over Mexico’s America on Sunday.
South American champions River Plate, with the fanatical backing of thousands of fans who have made the marathon trip from Argentina, meet Sanfrecce Hiroshima, champions of host nation Japan, in the other semi-final in Osaka on Wednesday.
Lionel Messi’s Barcelona are runaway favourites to win the tournament for the third time in seven years but they know that Scolari, in charge of their Chinese opponents since June, is not going to make life easy for them.
Although his reputation has taken a battering since his Brazil side lost 7-1 to Germany at last year’s World Cup, Scolari has always been a specialist in knockout matches, known in Brazil as mata-mata (do or die).
More comfortable when his team are seen as the underdogs, he often takes the laws of the game to their limits by using tactical fouling to stop the opposition stringing together passes in midfield.
In his wilder days back in the cutthroat world of Brazilian domestic soccer, he was even known to criticise players for not fouling enough, and to throw spare balls onto the pitch to disrupt opposition attacks.
When Scolari’s Brazil beat Spain 3-0 in the Confederations Cup final in 2013, they committed 26 fouls, nearly all of them sly trips and shirt-tugs in midfield, and did it so subtly that they did not pick up a single yellow card.
A mixture of local Chinese players with a contingent of Brazilians, Guangzhou are unbeaten in 28 games, including 24 since Scolari took charge in June. In that time, they have won both the Chinese league and the Asian champions league.
“Our team did everything possible to get here and to play Barcelona, so this is absolutely spectacular for us,” said Scolari.
“We know we are the small team, but I think we can do something. I have to dream and make the players believe that they can do it. Why not dream, why not believe we can beat Barcelona?”
Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets, whose side were welcomed by hundreds of Japanese fans when they arrived on Monday, recognised the threat.
“They are a dangerous team, they have Scolari, they have Brazilian players and they have already caused a surprise,” he told reporters.
Although a Barcelona-River Plate final is considered the likely outcome, the Argentines will not be taking their Japanese opponents lightly, especially as South American teams have found the semi-final tie anything but a formality in the past.
San Lorenzo needed extra-time to beat Oceania champions Auckland City last year, while Brazilian sides Internacional and Atletico Mineiro have both been knocked out by African sides at the same stage.
“They have already show they are difficult opponents, who are quick and play well on the counter-attack and are strong at set pieces,” said River midfielder Leonardo Ponzio.