Fluminense edge out Al Ahly in Club World Cup semi-final thriller

Brazilians book place in final thanks to goals from Arias and Kennedy against Egyptians

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Those still questioning the value of the Fifa Club World Cup would have been wise to tune in their televisions on Monday night to Saudi Arabia.

At King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, not quite full but regardless a constant cacophony of noise, the champions of South America and their African equivalents went at each other like competing heavyweight boxers hell-bent on landing a knockout blow.

The competition has always felt the preserve of everyone contesting it other than perhaps Europe’s elite, or more specifically the English establishment, a coveted crown from South America to Asia and the majority of places in between.

That’s why Marcelo, Fluminense’s trophy-hoarding full-back, set about everything on Monday at a pace that belied his 35-and-a-half years. That despite having won the tournament four times to this point with Real Madrid.

The same could be said for rival Hussein El Shahat’s incredible zest and sense of purpose; this was the Al Ahly winger’s 14th Club World Cup appearance, extending the record that for some time has belonged to him. Given his gusto, it could have been his first.

What’s more, El Shahat has in his locker already a silver medal, and a bronze. But clearly on Monday the Egyptian had fixed his focus purely on the quest for gold.

Then again, they all did. For much of the match, the rendezvous resembled a basketball game, less a football semi-final. Perhaps that was just it: the prize being played for, the carrot coaxing this effort from the competing continental kings, was Friday’s showpiece, where they would face either favourites Manchester City or potential upstarts Urawa Red Diamonds. For both Fluminense and Ahly, it promised a chance at a first global title.

So, from the moment Percy Tau set the tone by sending a deflected effort over the Fluminense goal on three minutes, it was rock ‘em, sock ‘em stuff.

There were only nine minutes gone when Colombia’s Jhon Arias cannoned a volley off the Ahly upright; El Shahat, whose goal in the previous round against hosts Al Ittihad hauled him alongside Karim Benzema as the only players to score in four separate editions, attempted a lob from fully 50 yards.

Felipe Melo, formerly of Juventus, Galatasaray and Inter Milan, and five years Marcelo’s elder, threw himself as if his life depended on it to prevent Tau as he bore down on goal. At the other end, Yasser Ibrahim lunged defiantly to deny Arias.

Then, the woodwork did his job for him, again. Once more, Arias sent a volley thudding off the Ahly post, via a slight deflection. When your luck’s not in, eh?

Not long after the half hour, Ahly thought they were in front. They really should have been. But Mahmoud Kahraba, meeting El Shahat’s looping deflected shot, headed straight at Fabio from close range. Tau sent the rebound beyond the crossbar.

Defying seemingly all odds, the sides kept up the back and forward from then on in.

At the beginning of the second half, 2023 Copa Libertadores Golden Boot German Cano drilled a fierce drive inches wide that had Ahly goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy scrambling. Moments later, Kahraba was sent free but didn’t connect properly with his shot.

Soon, Marcelo had a shot that ricocheted off an opponent and forced him to thrust his head in his hands. Melo prevented a certain goal by flicking a cross away from the onrushing Kahraba. Fabio saved superbly, down low, from El Shahat. Just more than an hour gone, and the scoreboard read 0-0? How so? It was barely believable.

Then, it all changed. On 70 minutes, Marcelo nutmegged Tau, got on his other side and was felled. Not to be outdone a third time, Arias placed his penalty brilliantly inside Ahly’s left-hand post.

Still, the game reverted to type. Seconds later, El Shahat played in Tau over the top, only for the South African to head right at Fabio with the goal there for the taking. Substitute Taher Mohamed, too, flicked an effort directly towards the Fluminense No 1. El Shenawy thwarted Cano when through on goal. At the other end, Karim Fouad lashed his shot from range into Fabio’s grateful gloves.

Barely into stoppage time, Fluminense made safe the result. Latching on to a loose ball, they broke, and substitute John Kennedy stepped inside his marker and dispatched a fine shot low past El Shenawy.

The Fluminense bench raced to him in celebration, Ahly’s players crumpled to the turf. A gripping, absorbing, seesaw battle had ended 2-0 to Fluminense, the Brazilians dreaming now of Friday’s final and what it holds.

Ahly, beaten but in no way bowed, must pick themselves up and go again, although a play-off for third will leave them mulling over what might have been.

Updated: December 19, 2023, 9:47 AM