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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.