Serial champions Bayern Munich jetted off to Morocco straight after their last Bundesliga match of the year on Saturday - not to enjoy a much-needed vacation, but to compete for yet another title - the Club World Cup.
It's not Christmas yet for Bayern Munich. Although they have been let off their final Bundesliga game before the winter break - their tie with Stuttgart has been moved to late January - the Bavarian multi-title-gathering champions have one more tournament to take part in, maybe one more trophy to gather before they can put their weary feet up and feast on Stollen and Glühwein.
On Saturday evening, even as Bayern's fans were still celebrating the victory over Hamburg that sealed the "fall championship" for Pep Guardiola's men, the players boarded a plane for Agadir, Morocco, to take part in the Club World Cup. For cynics, it's a bauble for FIFA to siphon more out of the cash-cow that is modern soccer, but for plenty of other teams it's a chance to measure themselves against teams like Bayern, touted as the best in the world.
Almost at the same time as Bayern swatted aside HSV, forgoing the 9-2 humiliation of last season with a more measured 3-1 win, the quarter final was being played in Agadir between Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande of China and African champions Al Ahly Cairo, of Egypt.
Bayern get Lippi
The Chinese side prevailed 2-0, setting up a semi-final clash with Bayern on Tuesday evening (17.12.2013). The game promises to be interesting if for no other reason than the fact that Guangzhou are coached by one Marcello Lippi, the Italian legend who rained on Germany's World Cup parade in 2006 by guiding the Azzurri past die Mannschaft on their way to the title. Apart from facing an adversary of such stature, one veteran of Germany's glorious but unsuccessful campaign has graduated to become captain of the all-conquering Bayern - Philipp Lahm - and will relish facing him.
Bayern are naturally overwhelming favorites to win that semi-final, and if they do they will face either Raja Casablanca, the Moroccan champions who qualified as hosts, or Atletico Mineiro of Brazil in next Saturday's final. The Brazilians, who boast 33-year-old former Brazil and Barcelona star Ronaldinho in their ranks, are certainly the second strongest side in the tournament.
These two potential matches are mouthwatering propositions, despite the relative irrelevance of the tournament. And even though Bayern, having already bagged four trophies this year, might be forgiven for not taking this extra bauble too seriously, it is something they are keen to win.
"We want the title, otherwise we wouldn't need to go there at all," Bayern attacker Thomas Müller told Kicker magazine, while club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge chimed in, "We want to get this title that we're still missing," before adding unnecessarily, "It would be good for the museum." Indeed, it would represent a near-clean sweep (minus the German Super Cup they allowed Dortmund to take off them pre-season) for the Bavarians, and the crowning achievement of an awesome year.
But the win might also provide a much needed lift to their tired spirits. As many pundits have observed, cracks are beginning to show in the magnificent Bayern edifice. The defeat to Manchester City in the Champions League may have been no more than a blemish on their record in the end, but if the English side had got their math right and pushed for a fourth goal, Bayern could easily have ended up in the dreaded second spot in the group.
And on Saturday, though they eventually established easy dominance over HSV, Bayern did not switch from defense to attack as quickly as they were used to - devoid of the dynamic Schweinsteiger, Bayern's midfield often leaves Müller and Mario Mandzukic stranded up front. It was not insignificant that it took the fresh legs of a substitute, Xherdan Shaqiri, to seal the points after Bayern conceded a late goal to HSV's Pierre-Michel Lasogga.
The reactions of the two coaches were also telling. Guardiola lamented his team's carelessness - "We lost the ball too easily too often. It's okay to lose the ball once in a while, but not so easily" - while HSV's Bert van Marwijk seemed to think his team had underachieved: "We could have done more today," he said. "That's really a shame. One point would have made it a nicer day."
Fatigue exposed the inherent weakness in Guardiola's system, which depends so much on pressing, high-tempo attack, and a fluid exchange of positions to befuddle the opposition. When players are tired, and so more likely to lose possession, a defensive team like HSV can easily capitalize - something that was illustrated by the fact that Hamburg's managed 13 shots at goal on Saturday, whereas Dortmund, playing against a fresher Bayern three weeks ago, produced only seven.
Still, such criticisms are still cosmetic, given that Bayern are still the dominant team in Europe - and by the end of the week, they might well be world champions too.