Club World Cup final: Chelsea need more from Lukaku and Palmeiras fans can play their part

Saturday's championship game between champions of Europe and South America to be played at Abu Dhabi's Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium

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Palmeiras will bid to end Europe’s monopoly on the Club World Cup when they face Chelsea in Abu Dhabi on Saturday night.

Sides from Europe have won the last eight editions. Coincidentally, the last time that sequence was broken was when Chelsea lost to a side from the same city as their opponents this weekend. Corinthians, city rivals of Palmeiras in Sao Paolo, beat them 1-0 in the 2012 final in Japan.

If it is difficult to ascertain quite how importantly Chelsea regard this competition, the same is not remotely true of their opponents. Palmeiras’ bus was mobbed when leaving home earlier this month, and they have been followed to the UAE by thousands of supporters.

Will the trip home be a happy one?

Lukaku needs to give more

“He fought very hard and tried very hard. He gave everything, that is why the chances all the time came to him.”

That was the view of Zsolt Low, the Chelsea assistant coach, on Romelu Lukaku’s performance in the semi-final against Al Hilal.

Which suggested one of two things. Either he was watching a different game. Or he was keen not to rock the boat during his short stint as Thomas Tuchel’s locum, with the manager absent due to Covid.

Lukaku did return to goalscoring ways against the Saudi giants. A tap in after a defensive botch gave him his second goal of 2022 – the other coming against non-league side Chesterfield.

But to suggest he “gave everything” is stretching the truth. There should be plenty left in the Belgian striker’s tank for the final. Whether he deigns to give it remains to be seen.

Romelu Lukaku of Chelsea celebrates after scoring against Al Hilal. EPA

Kepa hoping to keep place

Edouard Mendy has been training in Abu Dhabi having arrived from Senegal national duty at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Tuchel is understood to be considering restoring his No 1 to the line-up for the final against Palmeiras, and is open to offers for Kepa Arrizabalaga to move in the summer.

If Chelsea are going to recoup much of the £71.6m ($97.2m) they paid Athletic Bilbao for his services in 2018, then matches like the semi-final will help the cause.

Arrizabalaga was outstanding on the few occasions he was called on against the champions of Asia, with one save from a drive by Mohammed Kanno particularly stunning. He would be unlucky to lose his place on the back of it.

Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga saves a shot during the 2021 Fifa Club World Cup semi-final. AFP

Feeling the pressure?

Brazilians, plus most non-European supporters besides, cannot fathom why the Club World Cup appears to be so low down the pecking order for English clubs like Chelsea.

It is true the competition has always been regarded with ambivalence by English teams, dating all the way back to the time Manchester United controversially withdrew from the FA Cup to play in the first one in 2000.

And yet Low claimed the insipid showing by Chelsea in their 1-0 win over Hilal was because they care too much.

“This competition is very important for the club,” Low said. “Chelsea have never won this competition and that’s why the players feel the pressure.

“I think that is why we lacked the freedom to find the solutions and find a good rhythm and score more goals.”

Passionate Palmeiras

Low said the semi-final had felt like an away game, such was the din made by Al Hilal’s passionate supporters at the Mohamed Bin Zayed Stadium on Wednesday night.

The same will almost certainly be the case on Saturday, too. Thousands of supporters have made the 12,000km journey from Sao Paulo to Abu Dhabi for the tournament.

There could be as many as 15,000 wearing the Palmeiras green in the stands for the final. Which goes to show that any skepticism over the value of the Club World Cup is only one way.

It is coveted avidly by the club’s fans – so much so that they even serenade their side with a song about winning it for the first time.

Palmeiras fans cheer during the Club World Cup semi-final AGAINST Al Ahly in Abu Dhabi. AP Photo

Few household names

It is not unusual for leading Brazilian sides to feature players who are not exactly household names outside their own continent.

That is certainly the case of this Palmeiras team. Few of their squad have represented Brazil for a significant number of games, while their captain is from a comparative backwater of South American football.

Gustavo Gomez, a Paraguayan, is widely considered the best centre-back in Brazil. He is the personification of the diligence and discipline on which Abel Ferreira, the Portuguese manager, has based his unprecedented success with the back-to-back Copa Libertadores winners.

At the other end of the field, Chelsea’s defenders will need to be wary of Dudu, the Palmeiras attacking midfielder who is back at the club where he is regarded as a legend after a stint playing in Qatar.

Updated: February 12, 2022, 7:53 AM