Al Jazira 1-2 Real Madrid
Jazira: Romarinho 41'
Madrid: Ronaldo 53', Bale 81'
For a moment, Al Jazira thought they were 2-0 up.
Two-nil up against Real Madrid. That Real Madrid, the defending Fifa Club World Cup champions, the current Spanish and European champions. Winners of three of the past four Uefa Champions League titles. Two-nil up in the semi-final of the Fifa Club World Cup, in Abu Dhabi. It was barely believable.
Indeed, it was too good to be true. Ali Mabkhout had delayed his pass to Mbark Boussoufa; Boussoufa had perhaps gone a fraction early. It was relayed to the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at Zayed Sports City - the second time on Wednesday night the technology was needed - and it came back offside. “No Goal” it read, in giant letters on the giant electronic screen.
Then Ali Khaseif, the Jazira goalkeeper and captain went off. Then Cristiano Ronaldo, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, scored to level the match. For 52-and-a-bit minutes, Jazira had stood strong against Ronaldo and Karim Benzema and Luka Modric and Isco and everyone else. Zinedine Zidane had stood on the edge of his dugout, hands in pockets, presumably wondering what was going on.
What had was incredible, unexpected. Khaseif had made save after save, most of them world-class, too. He clawed Ronaldo’s deflected header, somehow, when the ball was already past him. He dived to his left to push away Karim Benzema’s powerful downward header. He repelled Luka Modric, not once but twice, the first tipping a low drive into the post. If this was Khaseif the Cat, he was rifling through his nine lives.
When his reflexes deserted him, fortunate favoured him. After all, Jazira, against 12-time winners of the European Cup and against all the odds to boot, had been unbendingly brave. Only 30 minutes had elapsed. It felt like an eternity.
Twice Madrid had goals disallowed in that opening half hour. One seemed soft, when Ronaldo placed his hands on Mohammed Ayed’s back before Benzema headed home. The second called upon VAR for the first time but, much to Jazira’s delight, Benzema was adjudged to have fouled Salim Rashid before the Emirati bundled the ball into his own net.
Then, three minutes before half time, Jazira went in front. The UAE champions were a goal to the good against Madrid. It began with Yaqoub Al Hosani’s bite in midfield, continued with Boussoufa’s precision pass, and concluded with Romarinho’s feign and ice-cool finish past Keylor Navas in the Madrid goal.
The Jazira bench erupted; Zayed Sports City stadium, packed with 36,000 people-plus on one of those rare feverish football nights in the Emirates, erupted also. Al Jazira one, Real Madrid nil.
But right after half time, Mabkhout delayed his pass when through on goal, Boussoufa perhaps went too early, and Madrid hauled themselves back into the game. Into the game and, ultimately, into the final.
On 53 minutes, Ronaldo struck, swivelling on Modric’s through-ball and drilling past Khaled Al Sennani, Jazira’s replacement goalkeeper. Benzema found the woodwork, twice. Al Sennani blocked a couple of shots.
As Jazira threatened on the break, to their infinite credit, a substitute of their own stole in to break their hearts. Gareth Bale was on the pitch less than a minute, but was clear-minded enough to side-foot home Lucas Vasquez’s low cross.
It was Bale’s first touch. Having matched Madrid for the majority, Jazira were finally behind. In the end, they lost the semi-final, to Ronaldo and to Bale and to Real Madrid. But they did not lose face. More than that, they did as manager Henk ten Cate has said all along: they did themselves and their country proud.