Fifa Club World Cup: Real Madrid win title but Al Jazira do UAE and Abu Dhabi proud

Performances of Ali Khaseif, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and VAR among John McAuley's CWC UAE 2017 talking points

Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo (R) holding his 2017 FIFA Club World Cup Silver Ball award celebrates with his teammate Luka Modric holding his 2017 FIFA Club World Cup gold award after winning the FIFA Club World Cup final football match against Gremio FBPA at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi on December 16, 2017.
Real Madrid defeated Gremio 1-0 to lift the FIFA Club World Cup for the third time. / AFP PHOTO / KARIM SAHIB

Ronaldo the main man, but Modric makes Madrid tick

There is no denying Cristiano Ronaldo likes the limelight. He basks in it. And with some merit, too, since his record at Madrid is remarkable.

"The numbers do not deceive," Ronaldo said on Saturday night, after firing his side to an unprecedented second-successive Club World Cup crown, not to mention a club-record fifth trophy in a calendar year.

But behind him is Luka Modric.

Little Luka Modric, the midfield metronome who knits Madrid's play, ensuring matches run to his whim. In the semi-final, Modric was named man of the match (Ali Khaseif!), before controlling the tempo throughout against Gremio in the final.

Modric never looks rushed, no matter the frenetic action often going on around him. He was deservedly named the tournament’s best player.

But it is not just that. Modric has a valid claim as the world’s foremost central midfielder as well.

Soccer Football - FIFA Club World Cup - Al Jazira vs Urawa Red Diamonds - Zayed Sports City Stadium, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - December 9, 2017   Al Jazira players celebrate by attempting to throw coach Henk ten Cate in the air at the end of the match    REUTERS/Matthew Childs

Al Jazira put pride into 'Pride of Abu Dhabi'

“We’re a small champion from the UAE,” he reminded, “up against the champions of continents.”

But that small champion upset their continental counterparts. They defeated Oceania's Auckland City, nine-time tournament veterans, then Asia's Urawa Red Diamonds.

In the semi-final, Jazira gave Madrid a hell of fright. They frustrated the world’s most renowned club side (Ali Khaseif!) then went ahead. One-up was so nearly two, before Madrid rebounded through Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Jazira lost, but they had excelled - and more - in the biggest game in UAE club football history. The 4-1 defeat to Pachuca in the bronze-medal match should not deflect from what was a Herculean campaign for the Abu Dhabi club.

As Ten Cate emphasised, Jazira had done their country proud.

Soccer Football - Club World Cup - Al Jazira v Auckland City FC - Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain City, United Arab Emirates - December 6, 2017   Al Jazira’s Ali Khaseif Housani makes a save   REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Ali Khaseif stars on biggest stage

Ali Khaseif! Say again, repeat six times. For that would represent every one of the Jazira goalkeeper’s saves against Madrid.

The majority came within the first 20 minutes of the semi-final. Khaseif stood strong against the onslaught, repelling Ronaldo, Modric, Karim Benzema and anyone else who tried to test him. He was at times fortunate, but it was an incredible night’s work, in full view of the world.

Social media soon caught on: Khaseif was mocked up as the face of a Fifa video game’s “Legend Edition”. He was depicted with eight arms. He was said to be a brilliant blend of Manuel Neuer, Gigi Buffon, Oliver Kahn and Iker Casillas.

To everyone’s dismay, he succumbed to injury and departed before Madrid drew level. Still, as Khaseif noted, he can one day tell the grandkids of his near-impossible night against Madrid.

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Read more

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Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane wants Fifa to fine-tune use of VAR

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Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov (C) checks the video assistant referee (VAR) during the FIFA Club World Cup quarter-final match between CF Pachuca and Wydad Casablanca at Zayed Sports City Stadium in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi on December 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE

VAR welcome, but needs refining

Once more, Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was employed at the Club World Cup. It was first trialled at last year’s tournament, when Madrid’s Sergio Ramos was spared a red card in the final.

This year, VAR was called upon again, most notably twice in semi-final between Jazira and Madrid. Initially, it took at least three minutes to come to its conclusion, much to the confusion of the teams and the vast majority of the 36,000-plus people in Zayed Sports City stadium.

Zinedine Zidane highlighted its problem afterwards, as did Modric.

Ten Cate said that, although the system deprived his side of going 2-0 up, that ultimately it had gotten both decisions right. VAR is appreciated - necessary even - but it still requires refining.

Graham Caygill: Fifa should follow lead of cricket and rugby and make video replays more simple

Soccer Football - FIFA Club World Cup Semi Final - Al Jazira vs Real Madrid - Zayed Sports City Stadium, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - December 13, 2017   Al Jazira fans before the match    REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

UAE football fans should maintain CWC fever

On Saturday night, Zayed Sports City felt like the place to be.

The stadium creaked to more than 41,000 spectators, eager to catch a glimpse of Ronaldo or Bale, or to cheer on a Gremio side seeking both a famous victory and the Club World Cup crown.

For the semi-final between Madrid and Jazira, 36,000 attended. At both, the experience was all the better for it.

It was a far cry from club football in the country, where only marquee matches attract significant numbers (although none would compete with Saturday). Even the tournament opener, where hosts Jazira took on Auckland, drew a disappointing crowd at little more than 4,000.

Madrid and their crop of Galacticos will always distort the numbers, but if only UAE football fans turned out regularly en masse.

It represents a perennial problem.

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