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.
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.
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