Alajuelense celebrates after scoring against Mexico's Club America in a CONCACAF Champions League match on October 22, 2013, at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. (Photo: Mexsport)
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- The objective for Alajuelense in 2014 is clear: qualify for the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup.
It may seem like a difficult mission for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinalist, especially when the quality of the other seven teams is taken into consideration. The Manudos realize, though, that this type of opportunity does not present itself often. They have decided to focus all their efforts on the winning the confederation’s title for the third time and first since 2004.
An all-Central American pairing against Panama’s Arabe Unido in March awaits.
“The last time La Liga won CONCACAF, we did not have the option of going to the Club World Cup and that always left us without a taste,” said Raul Pinto, the club’s president. “Now, in this semester, we are fighting and the priority is to get to that World Club."
That desire explains why head coach Oscar Ramirez has changed his starting lineups and decided to experiment in the domestic league. Five games into the 2014 Costa Rican Verano, Alajuelense has already used 25 of 30 registered players.
As its three win, two loss record indicates, the results have been mixed.
"It's hard to be among the first eight CONCACAF regardless of what has passed, indicating that they will all be tough games ," commented Ramirez.
Defeating Club America at the Azteca
Alajuelense realizes, more than most, how arduous it is to compete against the top squads from Mexico and the United States, facing off against some of their best in recent years.
"To get to the Club World Cup, we will have to overcome rivals such as Toluca and Cruz Azul, two teams that are on top of Mexican soccer,” noted Pinto. “But we got the players to believe in the Estadio Azteca.”
Pinto is referring to the fact that Alajuelense defeated Club America twice in Group 4 play last year, both times by identical 1-0 scores. The win in Mexico City on October 22 secured passage into quarterfinals and left everyone around the club believing that even greater successes were possible.
First to Panama
First things first, though. The Rojinegros must get past Arabe Unido, a task that is filled with challenges.
Ramirez has been analyzing the Panamanians closely and took a scouting trip to watch them in person this past weekend, while his side was idle.
"It (Arabe Unido) is a very similar to a team we faced (in the group stage), (Sporting) San Miguelito,” explained Ramirez on his return. “Maybe it's a little more defensive. It forms a weapons block close to its area that is hard to pass and it counterattacks quickly.”
Arabe won the 2012 Panamanian Apertura and advanced to the CCL’s quarterfinals thanks to a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on the last day of group play. The Expreso Azul has experienced some changes in player personnel, but Ramirez is taking nothing for granted.
"It has not changed much, it has the same manners,” said the 49-year-old, a five-time champion as head coach. “It is trying to assemble a midfield, but the people at the top are the same and back is a playing constant."
Alajuelense open the quarterfinals at home on March 10, before shifting to Panama for the second leg 10 days later.,