Real Madrid open FIFA Club World Cup march against Cruz Azul

BY Kyle McCarthy • December 16, 2014

Responsibility and success compel Real Madrid to postpone the winter break for a few more days. The surprisingly tricky 4-1 victory over Almeria on Friday completed their La Liga duties for the year. This excursion to Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup represents the final obligation before the festive period.

The celebrations are expected to start well before the return to Spain, though. The champions of Europe are heavy favorites to claim this trophy for the first time and finish this year by reigning over the entire world. The path to yet another title starts with the semifinal against Mexican side Cruz Azul on Tuesday (2:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go, Matchtrax and @FOXSoccerTrax).

"The year is not over," Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti insisted during his media conference on Monday. "We still have this competition, which is important. We are heading into it with a lot of excitement because we have done great work to get here. All the teams are champions and winning would mean putting an end to an unforgettable year."

Ancelotti can talk up the peril all he wants, but he understands the stakes at hand here. His side travels to this competition with little to gain and everything to lose.

The obstacles ahead -- a Cruz Azul side coming off 120 minutes against Western Sydney Wanderers in a Rabat monsoon just three days ago, then South American champions San Lorenzo as the likely opposition in the final on Saturday -- offer little in the way of genuine hindrance. The potential issues with the playing surface dissipated when tournament organizers moved this game from the quagmire in Rabat to the pristine surface in Marrakech. It is simply a matter of showing up with the proper attitude and turning aside the competition.

The absences of Sami Khedira and James Rodriguez through injury for this opening match complicate matters a bit, but Madrid boast the necessary cover to compensate against a side incapable of matching its high tempo for the duration of the affair. It is incumbent on the selected players to make the best use of the extra day of rest provided by playing on Friday and reveal their superiority accordingly.

"We come here on the back of winning the Champions League and we want to make our supporters happy by lifting the Club World Cup and closing out the year in the best way possible," Real Madrid defender Pepe told reporters during a press conference. "We have a lot of quality in the squad and we are putting in a lot of hard work on the pitch. We have all the ingredients to play well in the semi-final and have a good Club World Cup. We will face each game with humility and with respect for our rivals."

Cruz Azul must hope those intentions fade by kickoff. Luis Fernando Tena's side possesses plenty of talent in its ranks, but the recent performances -- including the poor Apertura campaign in Liga MX and the unconvincing display against Western Sydney on that boggy field over the weekend -- provide little evidence of a brewing upset here.

La Maquina needs to rely on its experience, its ingenuity and its pace in the wide areas to cope with the concerns presented and recover quickly from the energy expended at the weekend. Even with those positive traits in mind, the evident vulnerability at fullback and the lack of mobility in the middle of the park leave inviting weaknesses for Madrid to probe.

"We know all about Real Madrid's potential, their stars and their 20-match winning streak, but we're going to give it our best shot through humility, commitment and hard work," Cruz Azul forward Mariano Pavone told after his side finally vanquished Western Sydney on Saturday. "We want to make it to the final and no one can take that dream away from us. We have to be focused and take our chances. We have players with pace up the wings who can exploit the fact that Madrid defend with a very high line, but we need to be at 110 percent and for them to have an off-day."

If that balance somehow emerges over 90 minutes against rather considerable odds, then Madrid might encounter a problem. Otherwise, this first step in Morocco should provide the grounding required to prepare for the inevitable march toward the trophy this weekend.

"They are a quality team and work hard," Pepe said. "They have a lot of ex-La Liga players, but we must focus on our own work in order to win. Our history gives us an advantage. We have to recognize that and work with humility. We want to end the year positively."

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