Hosts Al Ain are now just one match away from realising their dreams at the 2018 Club World Cup and facing Real Madrid.
There is one major obstacle to clear, however. Copa Libertadores conquerors River Plate stand in their way at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium for Tuesday’s engrossing first semi-final.
A substantial step-up in class awaits after the Boss struggled past the amateurs of Team Wellington in a penalty shootout, then emphatically dismissed CAF Champions League holders Esperance de Tunis with a rousing 3-0 quarter-final triumph.
Here is our preview:
Moment of destiny
Al Ain have waited half a century for this.
The UAE’s most-decorated club were observers on the three previous occasions when the CWC was held within the nation’s borders. Thanks to the emphatic thrashing of Tunisia’s Esperance on Saturday, they now bound into a meeting against a true heavyweight with aspirations – somewhat realistic – of success.
Similarly charged emotions fill the River ranks. Their fraught SuperClasico in the Libertadores final featured an assault by their supporters on the Boca Juniors team coach, several postponements and a politically charged decider at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu.
And still, they emerged triumphant despite a flood of distractions that would sink most clubs.
River are the red-hot favourites in the Garden City. Veteran Leonardo Ponzio offers control, Exequiel Palacios raw talent and Gonzalo Martinez refined quality.
Al Ain’s UAE contingent come with far less fanfare. They will hope the passion of a host nation can carry them through to Saturday’s final.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Punch and counter punch
Marcelo Gallardo loves to exert control.
This is no surprise when you consider his time as a savant in River Plate, Monaco and Argentina’s midfields, plus the fact his managerial instincts owe much to Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola.
His River side will put their foot on the ball against Al Ain, then refuse to give it back until a goal forces the hosts to restart at the centre circle.
This, however, will suit Al Ain. They utilised – to devastating effect – a ‘rope-a-dope’ approach for the weekend clash against Esperance, where only 41 per cent of possession translated into a dominant win.
Playmaker Rayan Yaslam will be the key figure. In transition, he must feed swiftly into the feet of rampaging attackers Hussein El Shahat and Caio.
From there, Sweden No9 Marcus Berg must be at his efficient best after illness.
Intensity is key, which is some ask after 210 minutes of football within three days. The thought of a historic upset should provide energising inspiration.
All signs point to a River victory.
Palacios and Martinez exude rare quality, plus Gallardo is Argentina’s next great head coach.
Expect this to be one battle too many for the weary Boss.
River Plate 3-0 Al Ain
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