Gareth Bale warmed up for Saturday’s Fifa Club World Cup meeting with Al Ain by scoring three goals in Real Madrid’s simple semi-final win over Kashima Antlers at Zayed Sports City.
The Welshman became the third player to score a hat-trick in a Club World Cup fixture, as the European champions began their title defence with a 3-1 victory on Wednesday night.
Tellingly, he hardly seemed to reach full pace in doing so. He was given half an hour extra rest at the end, too, as Santiago Solari, Madrid’s manager, withdrew him with the match already all but won. He should be fresh for the showpiece against the UAE representatives at the weekend.
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His goals arrived in an 11-minute spell either side of half-time, as Madrid cantered through their return to the stadium where they had won this title, 12 months ago.
Given the pulsating atmosphere at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium so far in this tournament, fuelled by the wild success of Al Ain, the move up the road to Abu Dhabi initially met a strangely muted response.
This semi-final was not a sellout, but most seats were filled. Yet an attendance of 30,544 did not translate to much noise, despite the best efforts of a drummer, as well as the small, well-choreographed group of Kashima fans behind the goal at the southern end of the ground.
Neither did the players inspire much cheer. The game started at walking pace and, in the first phase, rarely gathered speed.
As a comment on how tepid the fare was, the first Mexican wave started as early as the 20th minute. Even that petered out soon after due to general ambivalence.
Even though he looked some way down on full fitness and match-sharpness, Bale was noticeably the most willing in the first phase.
His rustiness was shown in the 27th minute when he fluffed a right-footed shot when well-placed to score.
Like everyone else, he was playing in a low gear, as shown when he played a pass while doing his hair.
But it was the former Tottenham Hotspur forward who did, eventually, break the deadlock. He scored on the stroke of half-time, firing a low shot in off the right-hand post after a clever exchange of passes with Marcelo, Madrid’s left-back.
It was clear Bale was warming to the task, and – not that he really needed it - he was given a nudge along by some abject defending by Kashima.
Between them, Shuto Yamamoto and Jung Sheunghyun teed up Bale’s second, which he eventually swept into an open goal from the inside-right position.
He completed his treble two minutes later, when he rifled into the top corner from the left edge of the six-yard box after again being set up by Marcelo.
The Japanese side had scarcely pushed their illustrious opponents, but they were at least afforded a small amount of cheer when Shoma Doi shot past Thibault Courtois with 12 minutes left.
Initially, the assistant to the referee had flagged for an offside, and Wilton Sampaio, the Brazilian referee, had to wait for confirmation from a video review before allowing the goal to stand.
Some artificial interest was added when a supporter, with the 90 minutes up, decided to make his own excitement, invaded the field, and hugged Karim Benzema and Marcelo.
For Madrid, the champions of the Arabian Gulf League now await in the final on Saturday night. They might find those Asian opponents to be a rather different challenge to that posed by the champions of the continent.