The FIFA World Club Cup got under way last week, and it’s time to bring you all up to speed with the latest events from Japan. Three matches have already been played, and there’s now break until Wednesday, when the first semi-final match is to be played. Then, on Thursday morning (GMT), Manchester United enter the fray with their semi-final, with play-off matches preceding a double-header of the third and fourth place play-off match and the final next Sunday in Yokohama.
The tournament opened with a poor match between Adelaide United and Waitekere United from New Zealand. One might have expected this to be a comfortable win for the A-League professionals, but they made hard work of winning this match. They fell behind eleven minutes from half-time when goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic fumbled a fairly straightforward catch from a cross to allow Paul Seaman to stab the ball into the unguarded goal. Waitekere’s lead, however, lasted for just five minutes before Adelaide levelled things up, with Daniel Mullen being left unmarked in the penalty area to head the ball past the impressive Richard Gillespie. With seven minutes left to play, captain Travis Dodd headed in a free-kick from Paul Reid to win the match for Adelaide, and set up quarter-final match against Gamba Osaka.
Adelaide weren’t impressive in their opening match in the slightest, but they were considerably improved in their quarter-final match in Toyota City against Gamba Osaka, in a re-run of the 2008 AFC Champions League final. Gamba won that two-legged tie quite comfortably, but were made to work much harder in this match. The only goal of the match came after twenty-three minutes, when Yasuhito Endo was the quickest to react to Ryuji Bando’s flicked header and squeezed the ball under the oncoming Galekovic. Travis Dodd nearly repeated his goal from the opening match but hit the crossbat instead just before half-time and, although Adelaide created chances in the second half, Gamba were quick on the break and could easily have extended their lead. Whether they have enough quality to overcome what looks like being a string Manchester United side is, however, open to question.
Sandwiched inbetween these two matches was the match between Al Ahly and Pachuca. It was an intriguing match. Ahly are desperate to cement their credentials as a global force, whilst Pachuca have to overcome the prejudice of a couple of distinctly unerwhelming performances by Mexican clubs in this competition over the last couple of years. Last year, they were surprisingly beaten by Etoile de Sahel at this stage of the competition whilst, two years ago, Club America squeezed past Ahly before being torn to shreds by Barcelona in the semi-final. This match showed that, whilst Ahly clearly have the talent to be able to beat clubs like Pachuca, they still lack experience of playing clubs from the very top level of the game. Pachuca, a decent but not outstanding team, were allowed a route back into a match which Ahly should have tied up well before the end.
Ahly showed the same qualities in the first half as they did in this competition two years ago – absorbing a lot of possession and cancelling any serious threat towards their own goal. They took the lead after twenty-eight minutes with a smash and grab raid of which Dick Turpin would have been proud. Mohammed Aboutrika broke for them on the left-hand side. It was difficult to see whether his ball across goal was intended as a cross or a shot, but this was rendered irrelevant by the Pachuca defender Fausto Pinto, who deflected the ball pas his own, wrong-footed goalkeeper and in. If the first goal was the beneficiary of a very large slice of luck, the second was the result of a sweeping end to end move that would have flummoxed the best defences in the world. Mohammed Aboutrika, at this stage justifying those that claim that he is one of the best players in the world, controlled a long clearance beautifully and released Mohammed Barakat on the right wing. His cross was turned into the roof of the net by the Angolan striker, Flavio.
Two goals up at the break, then, this match was Ahly’s for the taking. They didn’t particularly deserve this lead (indeed, Flavio’s second goal was their only shot on target of the match), but they had the lead and all they had to do was see out the second half. What followed, however, was a mixture of appalling Ahly defending combined with an unexpected degree of tenacity from Pachuca. Only two minutes of the half had been played before the Mexican side pulled one back. Paul Aguilar was tripped on the edge of the penalty area, and the free kick from Luis Montes flashed through about four or five bodies, disortientating the Ahly goalkeeper Amir Abdelhamid and sneaking in at the far post. After such an encouraging start to the half, Pachuca stretched the Ahly defence to breaking point, but they had to wait until seventeen minutes from time for an equaliser. Ahly carelessly conceded another free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, this time in a central position, and this time Christian Gimenez placed the ball through a gaping hole in the wall and in to bring the two sides level.
With Ahly looking out on their feet as extra time began, it looked like being only a matter of time before Pachuca wrapped the win out, but it was more poor defending that led to the third goal for the Mexican side and it took just eight minutes to arrive. Alvarez’s through-ball was intercepted by the Ahly captain Shady Mohammed, but Alvarez kept running through and found himself on the end of a fortunate deflection to score. After this, Ahly had little left to give and, five minutes into the second period of extra time, another poor clearance this time released Christian Giminez on the left hand side, and he curled the ball across Abdelhamid to finish the game as a contest.
Ahly, then have to pick themselves up to face Adelaide United in Yokohama on Thursday for fifth place. Pachuca play LDU Quito on Wednesday, and the fluid attacking football that they displayed one they came to life will certainly give the Ecuadorians food for thought. On the basis of what we have seen so far, however, Manchester United won’t be losing too much sleep over the thought of not finishing 2008 as The Best Club In The World. Gamba Osaka will have to raise their significantly if they are to beat the English and European champions next week.
Here are the goals from the Ahly vs Pachuca match. You can see goal highlights from all of the matches here. Just click on the result of the match, then on the “Highlights” panel.