Proud Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic hailed “the greatest thing that happened” in UAE sporting history after Argentine giants River Plate were memorably edged on penalties to make the 2018 Club World Cup’s final.
At an electric Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Whites No1 Khalid Essa dove to save replacement Enzo Perez’s spot-kick and deservedly earn a likely final showdown with holders Real Madrid on Saturday. This followed an epic 2-2 draw by the end of extra time, during which visiting defender Javier Pinola’s third-minute own goal was instantly cancelled out by forward Rafael Santos Borre’s brace only for Caio to lash home during the early stages of second half.
No team from the Emirates had ever made the global showpiece before, an achievement Mamic was suitably thrilled by.
He said: “It is maybe better that this question is for somebody who is local, as they live here for a long time.
“I have been here for two years, a little bit less. But it must be a great, great achievement – the biggest result in the history of the country and Al Ain.
“I am proud to be part of this success. Last season, for the first time in our history we won the double [Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup] and now we are in the final of the Club World Cup.
“For everyone, when we talk about sport, it must be the greatest thing that happened.”
River Plate were red-hot favourites coming into this clash after their exploits this month in, belatedly, winning a controversial Copa Libertadores final against bitter rivals Boca Juniors. But apart from new Argentina cap Gonzalo Martinez, who missed a second-half spot-kick, their big names were cowed in the face of the incessant hosts – especially quiet Real Madrid-target Exequiel Palacios.
“I am very happy and very proud,” added Mamic. “What happened tonight, it’s an incredible thing.
Congratulations to Al Ain FC for qualifying for the final match of the FIFA Club World Cup. You proudly represent the UAE and the Arab world. We’ll be cheering for you. All the best. pic.twitter.com/qnfVwgeWw7— Hamdan bin Mohammed (@HamdanMohammed) December 18, 2018
“In 15 days, tonight was the fifth game. It is incredible what my players did tonight, how much energy, how much love for football, how much spirit, support for each other…
“It is unbelievable. They deserve to enjoy this moment.
“Only for tonight, tomorrow there is training. We have in front of us, four days for recovery.
“We showed that in football anything is possible, when you fight, when you respect each other, when you support each other. Again, I am very, very proud.”
River failed to live up to their billing and defeated head coach Marcelo Gallardo revealed that a hangover from the intense SuperClasico caused a critical lack of focus.
He said: “The game was very strange how it developed. We were losing after only a few minutes and then winning.
“There was an issue after the break. We tried to get into the game to control it, and then it was more balanced.
“Of course, the opponent has their own merit. I don’t want to take any merit from them, but we gave them some advantages.
“We could have killed the game, we were ahead. We had to know how to make a difference, we have to know how to focus on our game as we came from celebrating a title [Libertadores].
“But because we had a lot of surrounding activities, our work was to try and focus on this match. Unfortunately, this happened.
“But during the match, we were not fully focused. But I don’t want to use this as an excuse.
“We must use this as a lesson. A win can take you up, but a defeat is tough.
“We have to know how to put things in the right place.”
Wednesday’s action sees Madrid battle AFC Champions League winners Kashima Antlers in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City.
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