River Plate may benefit from Sanfrecce Hiroshima's great Club World Cup form
Ever since the Club World Cup was introduced a decade ago, the semifinal has always been a difficult game for the South American representatives.
The European champions have usually breezed into the final (though football being so gloriously perverse, the time will come when they slip up and fall at the semifinal stage). For the South Americans, though, it has never been anything else than a grim battle.
There are two easy explanations for this. The first is that this competition means so much to them. After winning the Copa Libertadores in the middle of the year, they tend to switch off and dream of a chance to have a crack at the glamorous conquerors of the Champions League.
First, though, they have to get through that semifinal. Inevitably it is a nervy affair. They are so close to a shot at glory, but so far, too. Losing the semi is like Christmas being cancelled. And it is also seen as a source of shame in itself, since it means that the team have lost to rivals from a continent where the game does not have the same tradition.
The other reason is that these days, in global terms, the champions of South America are not especially outstanding. The process of football's globalisation has carried away the continent's best players to more lucrative parts of the world. What remains can be well drilled, highly motivated and cunning.
But, for the time being at least, the days have gone when the South American champions would look forward to the annual game against their European counterparts because it was an opportunity to show off their extra skills.
There have been South American victories in the Club World Cup -- the Brazilian trio of Sao Paulo, Internacional and Corinthians beat Liverpool, Barcelona and Chelsea respectively. But all were ground out, single goal wins, tactical triumphs where the team took the field acknowledging the superiority of their opponent.
In the semifinal, however, the onus is on the South Americans to take the initiative in the game -- and this is something that they are not well equipped to do. Of all the South American semifinal victories, perhaps the most confident, impressive performance came from LDU, or Liga of Quito, the Ecuadorian winners of the Libertadores in 2008.
They beat Pachuca of Mexico 2-0 -- and they were surely helped by the fact that this was the one time that the South Americans were not clear favourites. The Mexicans went into the game fancying their chances against the first Ecuadorian side to win South America's crown. LDU, then, could revel in the role of under-dogs, and some of the nerves mentioned above surely did not apply.
Might this have some bearing on the chances of River Plate in the next few days? The Argentine giants had fully expected to meet African champions TP Mazembe in Wednesday's semifinal. But they were beaten on Sunday by the local side, Sanfrecce Hiroshima of Japan, who had previously overcome Auckland City of New Zealand.
River are said to have taken some 15,000 of their own supporters to the tournament. But the presence of a Japanese club in the last four will clearly have a dramatic effect on the atmosphere inside the stadium. For the most part, the River fans will be drowned out -- and after two convincing victories the Sanfrecce Hiroshima supporters will by now have faith that their team has a real chance of reaching the final.
All this might prove beneficial to River Plate. Whatever else they may lack, there are no deficiencies of experience or character in the Argentine ranks. A few months ago, it seemed that their Libertadores campaign was set to end early after a defeat at home to Cruzeiro of Brazil in the first leg of the quarterfinal.
But going into the packed Mineirao stadium actually brought out the best in them. River's most impressive performance of the year was their 3-0 victory in Belo Horizonte.
Will taking on a Japanese team in a Japanese stadium produce a similar outcome as River Plate seek to avoid the semifinal banana skin and become the first Argentine winners of the Club World Cup? Wednesday's match will reveal plenty about Marcelo Gallardo's side.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.