Wednesday 21 December 2016, 13:14

Real Madrid top of class at Japan 2016

THE TOURNAMENT REPLAYED – Real Madrid took the honours at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016 to make it three titles for the year. In lifting the trophy for a second time, Los Merengues extended Europe’s domination of the competition, with the continent having now provided nine of its 13 champions.

“Kashima surprised us. They’ve got players who could easily play in Spain,” said Los Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane after a hard-fought final. “The important thing was, though, that we came through and were champions.”

Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick, which fired him to the adidas Golden Ball, gave the European champions a rather deceptive 4-2 win over surprise finalists Kashima Antlers, who fell behind after nine minutes but came back to take the lead and then pin their opponents against the ropes at the end of normal time. It was only in extra time that Ronaldo ended the hopes of the J.League champions, for whom goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata had a superb tournament.

One of the reasons why Madrid endured such a nervy night was the cool finishing of Gaku Shibasaki, with Keylor Navas, who had celebrated his 30th birthday with a relatively relaxed semi-final outing against Club America, having to work very hard indeed to keep the Japanese club at bay.

Disciplined, tactically astute and physically strong with it, Masatada Ishii’s Kashima side showed against the Spanish giants that their run to the final was no fluke. It might have looked that way in their opening match, when they needed a late winner to see off Auckland City, who, on their seventh appearance in the competition, fell in the first round once again. The host club showed what they were made of, however, against Mamelodi Sundowns, dominating the African champions to advance to the semi-finals, where they stepped up another gear in seeing off Copa Libertadores winners Atletico Nacional.

That 3-0 defeat of the Colombians in Osaka was one of the shocks of the tournament and saw the Video Assistant Referee system come into use for the very first time at a FIFA tournament, with video technology being used in awarding the penalty that set the Japanese side on the road to victory. As hard as they tried, El Verdolaga were unable to find a weakness in the Kashima armour, with the host side tirelessly tracking and closing down their opponents before landing knockout blows in the closing stages.

That defeat for Reinaldo Rueda’s men was a rare one for South America, whose representatives have only failed to progress to the Club World Cup final on three occasions, with Europe’s champions only missing out on one, the very first of them all.

All-Americas consolation match Ricardo La Volpe’s Club America had to grit their teeth hard to beat Asian champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the second round and avoid a second consecutive early exit from the competition. Their comeback win, which came courtesy of a Silvio Romero brace, took them through to a semi-final with Real Madrid, a perfect opportunity for the Mexican side to continue their centenary celebrations. Though Las Águilas defended with determination and did their best to neutralise the threat posed by Zidane’s charges, they fell victim to Real’s remarkable habit of scoring stoppage-time goals, which ultimately put paid to Azulcrema hopes.

Nor could they gain consolation in an exciting match for third place against Atletico Nacional, where chances flowed at both ends and America produced a stirring comeback before paying the price for their waywardness in the penalty shootout.

A springboard for the future Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane had this to say at the end of his side’s involvement in the competition, which came when they lost to Jeonbuk in the match for fifth place: “I knew what my team could do in Africa and now I know what their potential is on the global stage. And I also know what we need to work on to come back and have a chance at succeeding.” As Mosimane pointed out, those areas are speed and physique, where they came off second best in their meetings with the two Asian sides.

Though victorious against the Sundowns, Jeonbuk failed to build on the momentum they had established in winning the Asian title just a week earlier. Despite being beaten by America and finishing only fifth, coach Choi Kanghae nevertheless expressed satisfaction at their efforts after what has been an intense season: “We’ve learned a lot from this tournament and it will help both the players and me to develop in the future. I hope we can come back here next year.”

Final standings

  1. Real Madrid

  2. Kashima Antlers

  3. Atletico Nacional

  4. Club America

  5. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

  6. Mamelodi Sundowns

  7. Auckland City

Stadiums International Stadium Yokohama Suita City Football Stadium Osaka

Number of goals: 28 (an average of 3.5 per match)

Leading goalscorers: Cristiano Ronaldo: 4 Karim Benzema: 2 (1 assist) Mu Kanazaki: 2 (1 assist)

Awards: adidas Golden Ball: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) adidas Silver Ball: Luka Modric (Real Madrid) adidas Bronze Ball: Gaku Shibasaki (Kashima Antlers)

FIFA Fair Play Award: Kashima Antlers