Al Ain, they’ve only gone and done it.
Against all odds, against all perceived wisdom, the UAE side saw off River Plate on Tuesday, outlasted the Argentine heavyweights, the recently crowned Copa Libertadores champions, prevailed on penalties and booked a place in the Fifa Club World Cup final. A potential final against Real Madrid.
In the shootout, Khalid Essa repelled Enzo Perez and River's fifth penalty and sent Al Ain into Saturday’s showpiece. River’s race was run; Al Ain’s promises something more, something almost unimaginable. Al Ain, Club World Cup finalists.
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All the way back, right at the start on another starry night at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain drew first blood against their storied rivals. Later, they rallied from 2-1 down. In between, they responded to a couple of harsh Video Assistant Referee (VAR) calls. Bit most of all, they never relented.
And so they dragged themselves back into the match, irrespective of their lofty opponents, irrespective of the fact they had played two matches in quick succession to River’s none. Apparently, adrenaline allied with the promise of what might come can work wonders for the weary.
The team who first led were last ones standing. Just like against Esperance de Tunis three days before, Al Ain scored early, once more from a corner from the right. This time, Marcus Berg tussled with River defender Javier Pinola, the ball glanced a body and found its way into the goal. Berg was credited with the final touch, although no one in Al Ain white, be it on the pitch or in the stands, seemed to care.
Yet the joy was fleeting. Six minutes later, River were level. Khalid Essa did brilliantly to repel Santos Borre’s effort, then Lucas Pratto’s prod, only for Borre to recover to apply the finishing touch right on the line.
Within seven minutes, River surged in front. Mohammed Fayez’s wayward pass went straight to Gonzalo Martinez, who slid in Borre at the same time Al Ain’s defence pushed out. With the angle closing, Borre found the corner.
River had done what freshly anointed Copa Libertadores champions are supposed to. In a flash, they had turned around the match.
But Al Ain kept going. Just before the hour, VAR helped convince the officials that a visiting player had not handled in his area under close attention from home captain Ismail Ahmed. A penalty seemed the more obvious outcome.
Right on half-time, VAR denied Al Ain once more. The ball ricocheted to Hussein El Shahat, who coolly tucked away his shot. El Shahat and Berg and what felt all of Al Ain celebrated, only for the video replay to show the Egyptian was narrowly offside. However, ball looked to have come off a River boot before it squirmed free.
But Al Ain refused to wallow. Six minutes into the second half, parity. Caio collected the ball on the left, drove inside and cut back the ball past a rooted Franco Armani in the River goal. Suddenly, it all felt plausible again.
Soon after, Essa saved the UAE champions twice in quick succession. On 68 minutes, River wasted a golden opportunity, Martinez drilling his penalty against the crossbar after Mohammed Ahmed had inexplicably tripped Milton Casco inside the Al Ain area.
Extra-time came and went, Mohammed Ahmed going closest. Penalties it was, then, where everyone scored apart from Perez. Al Ain had done it. Club World Cup finalists.