Khalid Essa is first among a team of heroes as Al Ain defeat River Plate in Club World Cup

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Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Essa wrote his name into UAE history as he decisively saved in the penalty shootout against South American giants River Plate to deservedly earn an unprecedented berth in the 2018 Club World Cup final and likely meeting with Real Madrid.

Sweden No9 Marcus Berg’s flick from a third-minute corner deflected in off centre-back Javier Pinola to lift a boisterous Hazza bin Zayed Stadium to its feet, before Colombian forward Rafael Santos Borre’s predatory double made it 2-1 to the Copa Libertadores holders by 16 minutes.

The video assistant referee would deny offside Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat before the break, but Boss team-mate Caio soon fired in at the near post on 51 minutes to emphatically level.

Al Ain dominated against their lauded opponents, but required Argentina winger Gonzalo Martinez to lash a penalty against the crossbar to make it to extra-time.

In the shootout that followed, substitute Enzo Perez’s unconvincing fifth spot-kick was clawed away by Essa to earn the finest club result in the annals of the Emirates game. Aristocrats Madrid should be their just reward on Saturday.

Here is the report card from an engaging clash:

GOOD

Martinez will be missed : Martinez announced a $17 million move to Atlanta United straight after the Libertadores decider, then was named the best Argentinian player of 2018 on the eve of this semi-final.

In his 90 minutes of action, it was easy to see why he’s so highly rated – a wild spot-kick, aside. Capable of going both ways from out wide, he shook the usually unflappable Tsukasa Shiotani.

Real Madrid-target Exequiel Palacios was comfortably outshone by his team-mate. What a talent.

Mamic’s marathon men: This is a night that will never be forgotten, a contest in which the UAE’s most-decorated club were undaunted in the face of one of the world’s grandees.

There were heroes all over the park, not least UAE No1 Essa. But each and every player clad in white pushed their physical limits in a third game in seven days, across 330 minutes of punishing action.

They nearly slipped up against amateurs Team Wellington, before running Esperance and now River off the park.

BAD

SuperClasico hangover?: Few fixtures in the annals of the game contained as much drama as this month’s delayed SuperClasico decider between River and arch-rivals Boca Juniors.

Assaults on the Boca bus, postponed matches and a controversial switch to Madrid prefaced a Libertadores tie of unmatched intensity. Little wonder then, that jaded River failed to reach the expected heights in the Garden City.

Barman’s Asian blow?: It promised to be a big few months in the career of UAE defensive midfielder Ahmed Barman, with the Club World Cup being swiftly followed by the Asian Cup.

The 24-year-old put in a season’s-best display against River, even setting up the opener from a corner. But he shed tears at the end of the second half when removed with a muscle injury.

Can he recover in time for January 5’s big continental kick-off against Bahrain?

KEY MOMENTS

3rd min GOAL: Ahmed Barman swings in a corner, Berg’s presence at the near post creates havoc and the ball deflects in off Pinola. Tongo Doumbia was also there to make sure.

11th min GOAL: A low cross is whipped in, Lucas Pratto has two bites at a shot and Borre nips in to level things up.

16th min GOAL: Oh dear. Makeshift centre-back Fayez passes to danger man Martinez. The winger slips in Borre and he emphatically floats a shot past helpless UAE No1 Khalid Essa.

45 +1 mins VAR: A ball ricochets to the grateful El Shahat, who sweeps in from close range. Bedlam ensues, before VAR brings a delayed halt to the celebrations.

51st min GOAL: Caio is slipped in on the left flank. The Porto-target then wins a yard of space and deftly lashes in at the near post.

69th min PENALTY/WOODWORK: Mohamed Ahmed hauls down fellow full-back Milton Casco. Martinez puts too much on the resultant spot-kick and the crossbar saves the Boss.

118th min CHANCE: A lofted free-kick is volleyed straight at River goalkeeper Franco Armani by Mohamed Ahmed, from point-blank range. Huge chance.

PENALTY SHOOTOUT: Perez is the first to blink – and he errs in River’s fifth attempt. Essa is mobbed by his jubilant team-mates and Al Ain go through.

TACTICAL TALKING POINT

Berg earns his berth

A third match at the 2018 CWC delivered a third-different formation for Al Ain.

Berg’s return to full-match fitness after a fever saw them shift into a 4-3-3.

Against Esperance, false 9s El Shahat and Caio had ran the Tunisians ragged in a 4-4-2.

Berg has never offered such pace. But his physicality helped force the opener and his nous kept the River centre-backs busy, allowing Caio to lash in for 2-2.

His race was run by 75 minutes. But he – along with the strangling trio of centre midfielder – did their bit.

More excellent work from coach Zoran Mamic.

VERDICTS

River Plate – C

So much was expected of this River side, and yet so little was delivered at the Hazza.

Palacios disappeared and head coach Marcelo Gallardo could not conjure another performance from his team. They could not complain about the result.

Al Ain – A+

Doing justice to this performance is an impossible task.

Al Ain boasted warriors on the pitch, bench, dugout and the stands. River were faced down and justifiably defeated.

Madrid beware, the Boss are coming for you.

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Underdogs Al Ain face a date with destiny in the Club World Cup against River Plate

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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:

TALKING POINT

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.

VERDICT  

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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Real Madrid target Exequiel Palacios features in key battles for River Plate v Al Ain

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Hosts Al Ain are now just one match away from realising their dreams at the 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 are the key players:

RIVER PLATE

Gonzalo Martinez

Position: Left winger

Age: 25

A swansong awaits Martinez in the UAE.

Major League Soccer champions Atlanta United are up next after the $17 million release clause in his River contract was met earlier this month. This outlay follows Martinez’s ascension as the latest playmaker produced by River’s famous production line.

Initial struggles after a $4m switch from mid-table Huracan saw his car vandalised and boos reign down from the Monumental stands. Long before he pounced for the third in the belated Liberadores decider against Boca Juniors, he’d become a River idol.

Al Ain must be on their guard.

FBL-LIBERTADORES-RIVER-BOCA

Exequiel Palacios

Position: Centre midfield

Age: 20

No other play on the pitch this midweek will garner more attention than Palacios.

The 20-year-old has emerged this year as a talent of rare ability, for club and country. A move to Real Madrid – probable final opponents in the Emirates – seems just a matter of time, though this won’t stop rampant interest in acquiring his services.

Palacios dominates the game, boasting remarkable intensity and stamina from box-to-box.

It will be the major task of Al Ain anchors Tongo Doumbia and Ahmed Barman to keep a lid one of football’s emergent stars.

River Plate v Boca Juniors - Copa CONMEBOL Libertadores 2018

AL AIN

Hussein El Shahat

Position: Winger

Age: 27

Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic is a lucky man to count El Shahat among his squad.

The Egypt international can be utilised in nearly every position – from right-back, to all across the midfield and even up top – and will still deliver a stellar performance. In less than a year in the Garden City, he’s notched 13 goals and 13 assists across 23 Arabian Gulf League matches for the reigning champions.

His ability to exhibit rare technical proficiency at top speed was on show for a delightful second against Esperance. River are warned.

ES Tunis v Al Ain - FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2018

Ismail Ahmed

Position: Centre-back

Age: 35

One of Asia’s best centre-backs of the decade still keeps on chugging away.

Ahmed provides a towering presence in defence and is a born leader. An ability to dominate physically has seen a plethora of forwards left crushed in his wake in the UAE’s top flight.

He will relish a straight-up battle with the pugilistic Lucas Pratto. Where he will be tested, however, is when the likes of the diminutive Martinez and Colombia substitute Juan Fernando Quintero bound off the flanks in search of space.

Ahmed must be on his toes to guard against this threat.

ES Tunis v Al Ain - FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2018

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