Any tournament that spreads 10 goals, with no extra-time, evenly across its two semi-finals must raise expectations for an excellent final. The Club World Cup, albeit squeezed into a compact schedule and carrying a decade's worth of predictable outcomes in favour of a European winner, holds real promise the hierarchy can be upset on Saturday in Rabat.
Real Madrid, whose path to the final was far less smooth than Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Al Ahly suggests, must begin as firm favourites against Al Hilal, but the 2021 Asian champions can only be emboldened by their experiences on the field in Morocco so far and in front of the video analyses of their opponents.
The Saudi Arabian club’s coaching team were rightly proud of the tactical ambush that helped them to a surprise 3-2 victory over Flamengo in their semi. Coach Ramon Diaz has studied areas where Madrid, without senior players because of injury and showing signs of fatigue, appear fragile.
There’s the makeshift arrangement at left-back, where first-choice Ferland Mendy is absent and French compatriot Edu Camavinga, a midfielder, has been filling in. Diaz and his staff noted the difficulties Camavinga encountered against Al Ahly’s Hussein El Shahat, who won the penalty that brought the Egyptians back into the semi-final at 2-1 down with 25 minutes remaining. Madrid scored their third and fourth goals only in stoppage time.
Madrid coach Carlos Ancelotti is anxious. He has summoned Eder Militao, the central defender, from rehabilitation from injury in Spain to increase his defensive options although Ancelotti acknowledged both Militao and centre-forward Karim Benzema — also called in having missed the Al Ahly match — are “not completely recovered”.
Among Ancelotti’s concerns are the compromises he has had to make across his back line. Thibaut Courtois, the goalkeeper, is out with a muscle strain and Nacho, the preferred cover for Mendy, has had to operate at right-back because the long-serving Dani Carvajal has been suffering from illness. Carvajal’s deputy, Lucas Vazquez, is out long-term.
Real Madrid triumph in semi-final
Al Hilal are potent on the flanks, too. Salem Al Dawsari, who converted two penalties against Flamengo, collected another man-of-the-match award on Tuesday. Andre Carillo shone against the South American champions even if it was in a deeper position than the Peruvian winger is accustomed to. Luciano Vietto, meanwhile, will come into the final brimming with confidence.
The Argentinian was fouled twice in the Flamengo penalty area to give Al Dawsari his brace of spot-kick goals and, outwitting David Luiz, scored Al Hilal’s third. “He was brilliant,” said Diaz of his compatriot, applauding the tactical discipline of Vietto.
“We surprised Flamengo with our attitude and our strategy,” Diaz added. “They hadn’t anticipated us changing from 4-3-3 to 4-4-1-1, with Vietto in attacking midfield.”
To shock Madrid as Al Hilal shocked Flamengo would be a landmark for the ages. Not since 2012 has the European champion not won the Club World Cup, although the pattern of Europe versus South America as the assumed final has been steadily eroded. In 2018, Al Ain reached the final, losing to Madrid, as did Kashima Antlers, beaten by Madrid in extra time in 2016.
Al Hilal are ever more impressive ambassadors for the Asian Confederation and the Middle East, competitive semi-finalists in the Club World Cups of 2019 and last year, when they lost 1-0 to Chelsea. This, a first appearance in the final, comes on the heels of a memorable big-stage triumph for many of their players at the Qatar World Cup. Al Dawsari and eight of his club colleagues were involved in Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 victory over Argentina in the group stage. That was Argentina’s only defeat in a 43 match run that culminated in winning the World Cup final.
After that, the challenge of breaking Madrid’s dominant streak at Club World Cups - they have won all four they have been part of since 2014 - can look relatively mild. “We’ve got a talented squad with very talented players who have made a huge effort and have belief in themselves,” said Diaz.
Diaz, 63, is enjoying the moment. He was River Plate manager when they lost a final of the Intercontinental Cup - the Club World Cup’s predecessor from an era when only European and South American clubs contested the prize - to Juventus way back in 1996. Twenty-seven seasons on, he will be taking on his contemporary, Ancelotti, two veterans whose careers stretch all the way back to rivalries as players in Italy in the 1980s.
At 63 years old, they are still surprising one another. “I wasn’t expecting Flamengo to lose to Al Hilal,” admitted Ancelotti, “but Al Hilal showed what a high standard of football they can play. They have very good players. We have to give them a lot of respect.”