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:
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.
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?
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.
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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