Auckland City head coach Albert Riera has told his players to seize their moment when they take to the field against Egyptian giants Al Ahly on Thursday morning (NZT).
Al Ahly were beaten finalists in the CAF Champions League with Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca taking the honours so with Morocco hosting the tournament, and no participating nation able to field two clubs, Al Ahly slotted into the position usually reserved for the host nation’s league champions.
Auckland City last faced the Egyptian giants on 10 December 2006 in Toyota City, Japan, when goals by Angolan international Flavio and Egyptian football legend Mohamed Aboutrika gave the Africans a 2-0 victory.
Riera’s squad spent ten days in Salou, Catalonia, preparing for the FIFA Club World Cup playoff and played three friendly games to get themselves up to pace after the New Zealand season ended on December 4.
There they lost to Reus FC (0-1) and Korean champions Jeonbuk Motors (0-1) before picking up a highly creditable 1-1 draw with FC Barcelona B at the Estadi Johan Cruyff on January 25 in Barcelona.
Main photo: Auckland City head coach Albert Riera.Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.
‘The results speak for themselves’
Coach Albert Riera said:
“We are very excited. I think the players and everyone at the club have worked extremely hard but you always need the results otherwise, it’s all in vain.
“I thought the players did fantastic last season and the results speak for themselves. To achieve four titles last season was unique for the club.
“We put in a lot of work behind the scenes and have a hard working group of people that works very hard behind the scenes.
“Time has gone quickly and we’re almost there for our biggest game which is tomorrow so we’re all very confident, happy and ready to go,” he said.
After four weeks off for the festive break, Riera recalled his players to training on January 4 and to say there were a few creaks and groans along the way would be an understatement.
Nevertheless, Riera worked his players hard and believes they’ve come a long way in a short period already.
“Taking into account we started pre-season on January 4 and the players had just one month off after the longest season ever for our club they’ve done well.
“Having a game at a FIFA Club World Cup always gives extra motivation for the players but we can’t forget they’ve just started. We’re always addressing the fact we’ve only had 15 to 18 contacts with them on the pitch.
“The players also need to rest so you cannot always train at high intensity. We checked the players GPS and the numbers have been amazing. That tells you the players want to be here and they’re ready.
“It takes a few weeks to evolve, to be at your best and that’s why we saw that evolution after the first game with Spanish side FC Reus just 24 hours after landing in Spain. We knew that it would be very hard but that’s why we put it there.
“The players had to get used to these standards so we made it very hard for them and I thought we did very well and we could see progression and improvement against Jeonbuk.
“The pinnacle was Barcelona B (1-1 draw) that was probably the game we were aiming for prior to the Club World Cup and it is where we’ve seen our players at their best so far and hopefully this means we can get the victory against Al Ahly in the next game tomorrow.
‘Our preparation has been spot on’
“We knew we desperately needed a game like Barcelona B. We have a lot of experience of the Club World Cup and we make errors a lot of teams make which is how you learn.
“By going to Spain we had three tough friendly games with top teams which is what you need. You can’t replicate the intensity we will face tomorrow. The only way is through friendlies,” he said.
Intensity will be in no shortage from Al Ahly who are yet to lose a game this season having already qualified for the African Champions League group stages, won the Egyptian Super Cup and opened up a commanding lead at the top of their Premier League competition.
Al Ahly have no problem spending money, either, with at least several million spent on recruitment in the last two transfer windows underlining the gap between the Kiwi champions and the African runners-up.
“We’re extremely lucky and honoured and pleased. Barcelona B were in the middle of their season, like Al Ahly, they were very fit, very sharp, so without that we wouldn’t have any chance to compete with Al Ahly but our preparation has been spot on,” he said.
“Al Ahly are a huge club with massive players not only in Egypt but Africa as well and the crowd are going to push a lot for them so there’s a lot of pressure there carrying on their shoulders. It’s an extra element to take into account and we’re comfortable not being the favourite at that time and we’re going in to be the underdog.
“This squad of players have shown how flexible they can be and how well they can adapt to every circumstance. I think we give Al Ahly the label of favourites but behind closed doors we aren’t going to behave like underdogs.
“We have to be humble and believe in our game plan and what we can do and hopefully have a good game,” he said.
Riera’s main concern may not be physical. The former midfielder explained that his players’ attitudes to the challenge ahead of them could be the most crucial factor.
“My biggest concern is that the players have to believe that they can do it. I’ve been lucky enough to play in Club World Cups and what you quickly learn is that if you don’t have belief it’s impossible. It’s a one-off game not a 20-game league which would be a different story – at the FIFA World Cup you could see a lot of teams upsetting other teams – there is no such thing as an underdog.
“A one-off game everyone knows anything is possible. My main concern is the players must believe they can do it and I believe they can do it. We believe we have a chance for a positive result.
“The day prior to the game is the one the players can feel that time is near to the game. It’s not helpful to be over-excited or nervous although you will always feel butterflies.
“It’s positive to feel that because it means you care about what you’re doing. You can’t be extra motivated. Its about having the right amount of excitement, it’s about getting the balance right.
‘We are the underdogs here’
“To add extra motivation doesn’t help. That’s the nature of the game and I think we have the right balance. We will train today, do the basics, feel the sensations and that we’re in the right space – that’s the best way to prepare for the game tomorrow.
“In that regard we’re going to encounter a game where Al Ahly are the favourites. I like that on paper. The fact they’ve played 15 games gives them an advantage. That’s the reality, we know that. We come from New Zealand where we are normally the favourites and that means we are the underdogs here and that can be in our favour, we can utilise that in our favour.
“We all saw the welcome we had when we landed in Morocco. It’s a nation that loves football and we embrace that and breathe it in every corner of the hotel because the workers have photos taken with our players.
“They always have a word of encouragement for us and I believe having that label of underdogs means we will have a lot of support from Morocco. They remember us, we remember what it feels like to be in Morocco, and I would love to have a lot of support from Morocco helping us because we’re going to need a lot of help.
“I think we like Morocco a lot, Morocco likes us, they like Auckland City FC, they like New Zealand, their hospitality is something unique, it is no surprise to me but its always very nice to see again, so hopefully we can have some support because Al Ahly will bring a lot of supporters.
“Hopefully, we can have that extra support that always helps from fantastic people who love their football and hopefully we can make them proud of us as well.
“What I always say to the players is if you are involved in the game you love, which is football, then the best way to be involved in it is to be involved just as a player.
“If you are good enough to play the game, its the best part of the game to be on the grass and dictate the events in the game as a player is unique and is the best.
“It doesn’t last long. After 30 years of age, you’ll be lucky to stay in the game unless you are lucky like Takuya Iwata and play until you are 39.
“The pressure is more or less the same so I don’t feel more pressure as a coach but I am very jealous of the players. Where we train in Tetouan the grass is like a carpet and we have everything we need.
“I would love to be able to help them as a player but all I can do is help them to have the best possible game as a coach.
“What they have to do is enjoy the game, it’s how you perform better. Obviously, they’re going to be nervous and have butterflies, that’s normal, but after ten minutes, they’ll be more like themselves.
‘We’re going to try to be flexible’
“So, to me, the best way to be involved in the game is to be a player. Hopefully, I can help them have their best game possible against Al Ahly tomorrow.
“It’s easy to say now, but tomorrow, when you get on the bus and start heading to the stadium, is when you start feeling the time has come and you start visualising what could happen in the game.
“How am I going to feel? What am I going to see? But when you are there, it’s a different story. I believe I am going to be calm. Again, easy to say now. Once the game starts there’s not much I can do.
“For myself and the coaching staff, everything is done for the players. I once had very good advice from Ramon Tribulietx and he said he tried to be calm because its the best way to spot and observe things that are happening in the game, which is the best way to help the players. If you are very nervous then it’s hard to observe.
“So I am going to try to be very calm and see what’s happening and hopefully, everything we planned for goes our way. We’re going to try to be flexible. It’s just 90 minutes and goes very fast so we’re going to make the most of it.
“We’re going to have a lot of support at Kiwitea Street and people that support Auckland City FC and hopefully around New Zealand because I believe we are also representing the country.
“We sometimes don’t get the positive exposure that I believe we deserve sometimes for what they have achieved because it’s unique, and they deserve to be here.
“I hope we can feel the support from everyone far away and from people in Morocco so hopefully, we will have a lot of people wearing Auckland City FC shirts and scarves and make them proud.”
FIFA Club World Cup (1st round)
Game to be played on Thursday February 2, 2023
Auckland City v Al Ahly (Egypt)
Tangiers, Morocco (8am NZT)
How to watch
The game will be broadcast on Sky Sport 1 in New Zealand on Thursday February 2, 2023 from 8am (NZT).
Auckland City FC squad for FIFA Club World Cup (Name; Position; ACFC Club Apps/Goals)
1. Conor TRACEY (GK) – 60/0
2. Mario ILICH (M) – 84/7
3. Adam MITCHELL (D) – 85/6
4. Christian GRAY (D) – 12/0
5. Nikko BOXALL (D) – 3/0
7. Cam HOWIESON (M) – 149/30
8. Gerard GARRIGA (M) – 34/4
9. Angus KILKOLLY (F) – 51/33
10. Dylan MANICKUM (F) – 103/39
11. Ryan DE VRIES (F) – 150/66
12. Regont MURATI (D) – 3/0
13. Nathan LOBO (D) – 25/2
14. Jordan VALE (D) – 99/7
15. Aidan CAREY (D) – 54/2
16. Joe LEE (F) – 42/10
17. Reid DRAKE (M) – 125/19
18. Finn DOCKERTY (GK) – 0/0
19. Liam GILLION (F) – 30/5
20. Emiliano TADE (F) – 222/145
21. Michael DEN HEIJER (D-M) – 24/0
23. Matt ELLIS (M) – 19/10
24. Cam BROWN (GK) – 37/0
25. Takuya IWATA (D) – 148/2
COACH: Albert RIERA
ASSISTANT: Ivan VICELICH
GK COACH: Enaut ZUBIKARAI
TECHNICAL: Adria CASALS
TECHNICAL: Jarrod WALLACE
LOGISTICS: Keith COTON
PHYSIO: Matt PAYNE
DOCTOR: Dr. Craig EDWARDS
Our thanks to Auckland City Media for providing this report.