Wales superstar Gareth Bale belied his pre-match fitness worries to fire a fine hat-trick in a 3-1 Club World Cup semi-final triumph against Japan’s Kashima Antlers, teeing up a decider with hosts Al Ain on Saturday.
A drab first half at a subdued Zayed Sports City – for a repeat of 2016’s rollercoaster showpiece – came to life in the 44th minute when Bale was played in by Marcelo and he lashed in from a tight angle. Two goals in three second-half minutes followed, first slotting into an open goal and then rocketing into the top corner.
Kashima forward Shoma Doi’s effort under Thibaut Courtois, allowed thanks to the video assistant referee’s intervention, added barely deserved gloss for the AFC Champions League holders.
Here is the report card:
Doi’s delight: On a disappointing night for Kashima, Doi managed to take some personal satisfaction towards the end.
The 26-year-old excels in the Club World Cup. He got three assists in 2016’s run to defeat in the final, while he was man of the match in last week’s come-from-behind win against Guadalajara.
His finish, this time, was assured in ZSC. At least that’s something to take for Kashima, for whom Doi’s strike partner Serginho disappointed.
Left leaning: Madrid’s left-hand side was lit up by Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo for almost a decade, prior to the former’s sale to Juventus this summer.
The Brazil left-back’s relationship hasn’t burst into life with Bale – that was before Wednesday night.
A pair of superb passes, one instinctive and the other patiently timed, put Bale in for chances that he superbly dispatched.
This sight must become more frequent for Los Blancos’ wider ambitions to be met.
History couldn’t be corrected: Uncertainty defined Kashima in the face of their mission for revenge.
The near miss in 2016 against Madrid still stings Japan’s great club. It was spoken of in the build-up and you expected something from Go Oiwa’s men.
Instead, they seemed overawed. South Korea centre-back Jung Seung-hyun was particularly shaky, while they really could have done with Yuma Suzuki and Kento Misao – both were 2018 AFC Players of the Year nominees.
Although another chance may soon come around, if talk of an expanded 24-team CWC becomes real.
Ronaldo is missed: A near capacity crowd flooded into the revamped ZSC when Real came to town. No surprises there.
But the exit of Ronaldo, so decisive in the last two editions, was felt in a dull atmosphere.
The Portugal icon adds a degree of lustre only Barcelona rival Lionel Messi can match. In La Liga, it’s even been blamed for a drop in average Santiago Bernabeu attendances.
This CWC was also diminished by his absence.
44th min GOAL: This is what Madrid are all about. Ballon d’Or holder Luka Modric exchange passes out wide. The ball then comes to Marcelo, whose exquisite pass sends Bale through to fire in an unstoppable low shot.
53rd MIN GOAL: Oh dear, oh dear. Left-back Shuto Yamamoto dangerously passes in field, centre-back Jung Seung-hyun panics and it leaves Bale with an open goal. Thank you, very much.
55th min GOAL: Marcelo finds the ball, centrally, on the edge of the penalty box. He waits for the perfect moment to slip in Bale, to smash high into the far corner. Emphatic.
78th min GOAL: The video assistant referee is needed to rule that a Kashima player wasn’t offside at the start of a move that witnessed a deft low finish from Doi.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Going with the big guns
Madrid are settled in their ways under new head coach Santiago Solari, in what is a particular contrast to the days when Zinedine Zidane would test out new shapes and styles with regularity.
A 4-3-3 was also going to be picked by the Argentine. What surprised was the personnel he chose to fill it.
Bale and ex-France striker Karim Benzema have been carrying knocks, while the Sergio Ramos-Raphael Varane centre-back axis wasn’t broken up.
It was also a shame that emerging Brazilian flyer Vinicius Junior didn’t get a few minutes to impress in the UAE capital. This may still come in the weekend showpiece.
The control offered by Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric, Marcos Llorente and Toni Kroos was key to constricting an attack-minded Kashima, who like to bomb on in a 4-4-2. Only Llorente is not a guaranteed starter from this trio.
Kashima Antlers – C
Kashima talked a good game before this last-four tie, but singularly failed to deliver.
Head coach Oiwa was a picture of frustration as his side floundered. A strong response against River Plate in Saturday’s fight for third place is needed.
Real Madrid – B
Bale’s exploits, alone, lift Madrid’s score.
His eye for goal was key to see off limited Kashima. Madrid looked well short of their best, something they hope can be blamed on travelling rather than Solari’s underwhelming impact.
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