Is it that time of year again already? Long time readers will remember this site’s visit to the FIFA World Club Cup in 2006, and we have continued what is now becoming the tradition of lavishing attention on this tournament, which is surely the most peculiar in the football calendar. This year’s World Club Cup will be the last to be held in Japan for a couple of years – for the next couple of years, the competition will be played in the United Arab Emirates – and, as ever, there is an eclectic selection of clubs taking part, from Manchester United down to Waitakere United from New Zealand. This year’s tournament has an even more lop-sided look to it than usual. The surprise of the year in world football was Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito’s win in the South American Copa Libertadores, which made them the first ever Ecuadorian winners of a competition which features some of the giants of world football. That said, however, what many might assume to be’s assumption that Manchester United might just be a touch premature. Before we go on to look at why that might be, let’s start off with a quick look at this year’s runners and riders.

UEFA Representatives: Manchester United (England)

Who Are They, Then? Well, they’re probably the most famous club side in the world. Three times champions of Europe and seventeen times champions of England. Manchester United have had their spells in the doldrums – they spent much of the 1970s and 1980s spending heavily (and unsuccessfully) in a bid to wrestle the English championship from their rivals Liverpool – but there is no question that they have been the most successful club in English football since the formation of the Premier League in 1992.

How Did They Get Here? They cruised through their Champions League group, winning five matches out of six, though these group stages are now so one-sided that this was no great surprise. They were edgy in beating Lyon in the Second Round, before comfortably beating Roma in the quarter-finals. In the semi-finals, they beat Barcelona 1-0 over two disappointing matches. The final, against Chelsea, was the first all-English Champions League final. It was an intriguing game which United eventually won 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

Have I Heard Of Any Of Them? One or two, yes. Alex Ferguson has picked a full-strength squad to travel to Japan, so all of the most familiar names will be there. Whether they need to take three goalkeepers for a tournament that will only run to two matches for them might be overkill, but that’s the world that they inhabit nowadays. You can look forward to many pictures of Cristiano Ronaldo being mobbed by excitable Japanese girls over the next week or so.

What’s Their Form Like? Patchier than you might think. They only drew against Aalborg in the Champions League tonight, and laboured to beat managerless Sunderland in the Premier League last weekend. Their away form all season has been mediocre, failing to win at Everton and Aston Villa, and losing to title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal. They also lost the UEFA Supercup match against Zenit St Petersburg at the end of August.

CONCACAF Representatives: Club de Fútbol Pachuca (Mexico)

Who Are They, Then? Formed by emigrant Cornish miners in 1901, Pachuca are the current holders of the CONCACAF Champions Cup. They have been the champions of Mexico on five occasions, although they tend to spend their lives living in the considerable shadows of the giants of Mexican football, Club America and Chivas Guadalajara. They were here last year, but were knocked in their first match by Étoile Sportive du Sahel of Tunisia. Second time lucky, eh, chaps?

How Did They Get Here? This year was the final year of the CONCACAF Champions Cup, which has been renamed as the CONCACAF Champions League for next year. Only eight teams took part in it, and Pachuca qualified as the winners of the Mexican Clausura (the Mexican league has two seasons, one in the summer and one in the winter). They beat Motagua, from Honduras, in the quarter-finals, and MLS side DC United over two legs in the semi-finals. In the final, they beat the Costa Rican side Deportiva Saprissa 3-2 over two legs.

Have I Heard Of Any Of Them? Unless you’re Mexican or Argentinian, probably not. Goalkeeper Miguel Calero made fifty appearances in goal for Colombia before retiring last year after a disastrous performance in a 5-0 defeat against Paraguay in the Copa America. Squad player Victor Manon became the youngest ever player in the Mexican first division when he made his debut at the tender age of fifteen years and nine months in September 2007, and the midfielder Christian Gimenez has scored a not unimpressive twenty-nine goals in ninety matches from midfield for them, and could also be one to watch.

What’s Their Form Like? The byzantine nature of Mexican football means that we could be here all day discussing this. In the 2008 Clausura (which ran from January to June), they struggled, and finished up in a lowly tenth place. Their current form in this season’s Apertura is even worse – they’re second from bottom of the league, though the complicated nature of relegation in Mexican football means that they will be unlikely to get relegated this season.

CONMEBOL Representatives: Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito (Ecuador)

Who Are They, Then? They’re the team that almost certainly left Sepp Blatter seething, by getting further than the giants of South American football to qualify as the Copa Libertadores winners this year. They’re not, perhaps surprisingly, the most popular team in Ecuador – that honour goes to Barcelona Sporting Club of Guayaquil, who haven’t won the domestic championship since 1997 – though they have been the national champions nine times in the last thirty years.

How Did They Get Here? It is a tribute to the strength in depth of South American football that La Liga could win the Copa Libertadores. They qualified from their group by just one point, and had to battle hard through the knock-out stages, beating the Argentinian clubs Estudiantes and San Lorenzo to get to the semi-finals. Once there, they beat Club America on away goals in the semi-finals, and then beat the Brazilian giants Fluminense on penalties to take the trophy.

Have I Heard Of Any Of Them? Their current squad is almost entirely Ecuadorian, and the only truly “familiar” name to English viewers will be that of the veteran striker Agustin Delgado, who had an injury-plagued three years at Southampton, where he managed just eleven appearances. Delgado scored Ecuador’s first ever World Cup Finals goal against Mexico in 2002.

What’s Their Form Like? The Copa Pílsener Serie A hasn’t started yet, so it’s difficult to say, but they were beaten to the 2008 championship by city rivals Sociedad Deportivo de Quito by a hefty seven points in the first phase of the competition. In the second phase, during which the twelve team league is split into two groups of six, they finished second again, this time behind Social y Deportivo Macara, and in the final group they finished second again behind Sociedad Deportivo de Quito. The last six months, however, have not been particularly easy for them, and their coach, Edgardo Bauza, is quitting after the tournament. Don’t surprised if they can’t find a way past…

Confederation of African Football Representatives: Al-Ahly (Egypt)

Who Are They, Then? Only the biggest club in Egypt and the most successful in the history of African football, that’s all. They have over one million members, and play their home matches in front of 70,000 sell-out crowds at the Cairo International Stadium. They’ve been Egyptian champions thirty-three times, Egyptian Cup Winners thirty-five times and winners of the CAF Champions League three times in the last four years. Manchester who?

How Did They Get Here? They had a little bit of luck in the First Round of the CAF Champions League, when the Eritrean side Al Tahrir withdrew from the competition because of “internal problems” (which were widely rumoured to be financial difficulties), handing Ahly a bye. In the quarter-finals, they beat the South African side Platinum Allstars 3-2 on aggregate to qualify for the group stage, which they won comfortably, winning three and drawing three of their six matches. They won their two-legged semi-final 1-0 against Enyimba International of Nigeria thanks to a single goal from Flavio Amado and, in the final, beat Cotonsport Garoua from Cameroon 4-2 on aggregate, although this was a nervy affair. Leading 2-0 from the home leg, they took an early lead in the second leg that should have killed the tie off, but Garoua came back to lead 2-1, reducing the aggregate lead to 3-2, before a last minute goal from Shady Mohammed guaranteed the title.

Have I Heard Of Any Of Them? You’ve probably heard of Mohammed Aboutrika, who’s probably the best footballer in Africa and possibly one of the best in the world at the moment. He scored four goals for Egypt in the 2008 African Cup of Nations, including the winning goal in the final. He was also voted the African Player Of The Year, beating rivals such as Emmanuel Adebayor and Didier Drogba to the title. Striker Flavio Amado has been linked with a move to Bristol City, but nothing has come of it yet.

How’s Their Form At The Moment? Not perfect but, like Manchester United in the Premier League, they’re looming ominously behind the leading pack. They’re currently in fifth place in the Egyptian Premier League and have lost two of their first eight matches, but they have four games in hand on the leaders and would go top of the table on goal difference if they won three of those games. It would certainly be a little premature to write off their chances.

Part two of this guide, featuring Gamba Osaka, Waikatere United and Adelaide United, will follow tomorrow, along with a brief guide to how the tournament works.