Real Madrid begin their quest for Club World Cup glory when they lock horns with Egyptian outfit Al Ahly for a semi-final clash at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in Morocco on Wednesday.
The winners of this contest will face either Flamengo or Al-Hilal in the final on Saturday, while the losers will require a playoff to determine who finishes in third place.
Al Ahly are competing in the semi-finals of the Club World Cup for the third successive year after navigating their way past Auckland City and Seattle Sounders in the previous two rounds.
The Red Devils followed up a comfortable 3-0 victory in the first round against Auckland with a slender 1-0 win over Seattle in the second round on Saturday, courtesy of a deflected strike in the 88th minute from substitute Mohamed Magdy.
Marcel Koller’s side, who currently sit six points clear at the top of the Egyptian Premier League table, have now extended their unbeaten run across all competitions to 23 matches, including victories in each of their last five games.
Al Ahly are taking part at the Club World Cup for the eighth time this year and no other club in the competition’s history have played more games (20) than the Egyptian outfit.
The Red Devils are now tasked with beating European juggernauts Real Madrid as they bid to reach the Club World Cup final for the first time.
While keeping Real’s formidable attack quiet could prove challenging on Wednesday, Al Ahly will fancy their chances of displaying another resilient defensive performance as they have kept eight clean sheets in their last 10 matches, conceding just once in eight games in 2023.
Real Madrid have suffered a major blow in their quest to retain the La Liga title after losing 1-0 away against mid-table side Mallorca last weekend.
After Nacho Fernandez put the ball into his own net in the 13th minute, Marco Asensio was presented with an opportunity to restore parity from the penalty spot on the hour mark, but the winger was denied by Predrag Rajkovic and Mallorca held on to claim all three points.
The 35-time La Liga champions have dropped points in three of their five top-flight matches since the turn of the year and they now sit eight points behind leaders Barcelona after 20 games played.
Carlo Ancelotti will be keen to return to winning ways quickly in La Liga, but he and his side now shift their focus to the Club World Cup, a competition that they have won a record four times between 2014 and 2018.
Real Madrid, the reigning Champions League winners, will be regarded as strong favourites to go all the way and claim a fifth world title this year, but they have not always had success at the Club World Cup after failing to lift the trophy back in 2000 under former boss Vicente del Bosque.
Indeed, Los Blancos could only finish second behind eventual champions Corinthians in the group stage before losing 4-3 on penalties to Mexican side Necaxa in the third-place playoff.
Al Ahly will be without Mostafa Shobeir, Karim Fouad and Akram Tawfik as they continue to recover from long-term injuries.
A back four of Mohamed Hany, Mahmoud Metwaly, Mohamed Abdelmonem and Ali Maaloul is expected to remain intact, with Aliou Dieng, Amr El Solia and Hamdi Fathi all set to operate in centre-midfield.
Koller may consider making changes in attack, though, with Ahmed Abdel Kader, Hussein El Shahat and Mohamed Sherif all pushing to start after beginning on the bench last time out.
As for Real Madrid, they will have to cope without Karim Benzema (hamstring), Thibaut Courtois (muscle) and Eder Militao (groin), who will not travel with the rest of the squad to Morocco due to injury.
Ferland Mendy (hamstring), Eden Hazard (knee) and Lucas Vazquez (ankle) are also sidelined with injuries, but David Alaba has recovered from a calf problem and could replace Eduardo Camavinga at left-back.
Experienced midfielder duo Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are expected to return to the first XI after beginning on the substitutes’ bench last time out, while Rodrygo is set to keep his place as the central striker in the absence of Benzema.
Al Ahly possible starting lineup:
El Shenawy; Hany, Metwalli, Abdelmonem, Maaloul; Fathi, Dieng, El Solia; Tau, Sherif, Abdel Kader
Real Madrid possible starting lineup:
Lunin; Carvajal, Nacho, Rudiger, Alaba; Kroos, Tchouameni, Modric; Valverde, Rodrygo, Vinicius Jr