Chelsea defeated Al-Hilal 1-0 in the semifinals of the FIFA Club World Cup on Wednesday thanks to a first-half Romelu Lukaku goal. The Saudi team, however, improved noticeably after the break and took the European champions all the way to the final whistle.
Here are five things we learned from the action in Abu Dhabi.
1. Al-Hilal should be proud and a little disappointed
At half-time, the English media were not impressed with the Asian champions and the general consensus was that Chelsea would go on to win the game by a healthy margin. By the end, however, plenty of credit was given to the 17-time Saudi Arabian champions and most thought they deserved something from the game. If this had been a league game then a draw would have been a fair result.
Chelsea had the first half when they were dominant and Al-Hilal had the second. It was just one mistake that made the difference. Yasser Al-Shahrani was perhaps not expecting Kai Havertz’s cross to reach him but when it did, the ball bounced off his chest backwards and presented Romelu Lukaku with an unmissable chance. Just that one second was the difference. Chelsea also had that little bit of streetwise experience. On more than one occasion, there were subtle and clever fouls to stop the early stages of an attack, tactics that the referee could have clamped down on a little more than he did.
2. The performance bodes well for the World Cup and beyond
The Saudi Arabian internationals, and there are plenty in this team, performed well and, assuming the Green Falcons get to Qatar, they should be able to give anyone a game. Central defender Ali Al-Bulaihi was facing some of the best attackers in the world but gave as good as he got.
Mohamed Kanno has been in great form since he almost left the club in January and was a driving force in midfield, while Mohammed Al-Breik improved and grew in confidence as the game went on and Salem Al-Dawsari caused problems. It should give Saudi Arabia confidence going ahead and it should also give the players more motivation to go and try their luck in Europe.
It was clear from the game that these stars are good enough for the big leagues. If they can match the European champions then they can match anyone. As Chelsea’s impressive Marcos Alonso said: “They were a stubborn opponent. It was a difficult game for us but we got through in the end.”
3. Al-Hilal flew the flag for Asia but now want more
There have been quite a few meetings between the champions of Europe and Asia over the years and Europe has always won out. However, there have not been many games like this where the result was in doubt until the end and the UEFA representatives were hanging on and grateful to hear the final whistle. In the past, there was a feeling that too many Asian teams were simply focused on having a big game against a glamor opponent and then were happy to go home. Not this time.
There is a real sense that Al-Hilal now feel they have unfinished business. Players in the team and club officials were clear that their focus was to return to the tournament by winning the AFC Champions League again and once back on the global stage, they want to win. This is a natural step for a team that has won the Asian title more than any other. Asia is no longer the limit of Al-Hilal’s ambitions, They are not satisfied with just participating at the Club World Cup but want to win.
4. Matheus Pereira shows his class
Since arriving in Saudi Arabia from West Bromwich Albion last summer, the Brazilian playmaker has not quite performed to the heights expected. He was a standout in the English Premier League last season, even though his team was relegated.
In the first half, the 25-year-old was not so impressive and gave the ball away too much, lapses which often resulted in a Chelsea chance. In the second half, he moved a little further up the pitch, saw more of the ball and with the attackers sharper and providing plenty of movement had more influence. His touches and vision showed his class, and his pass for Moussa Marega was sublime.
It was the kind of chance that you don’t get very often against a team like Chelsea, and it is the kind of chance that needs to be taken. Pereira is a class act and if he can maintain such levels of performance on a regular basis then Al-Hilal will take some stopping in Asia.
5. Jardim is right to echo Mosimane’s complaints
Before Al-Ahly’s semifinal with Palmeiras, coach Pitso Mosimane voiced his unhappiness about the format of the FIFA Club World Cup, which allows the South American and European champions to go straight into the semifinals while the rest play one game or perhaps two games more. Jardim agreed.
“This is a warning to FIFA,” he said. “We have the best clubs in the world here, but it is unfair some teams have to play four matches in eight days and other teams can rest and only play two. Their teams are rested. I do not think that is fair. Always the same team wins and there should be more care in the schedule so the teams from Asia and South America have a chance to win the Cup.”
It is always best to voice such concerns before the game and Jardim is correct. It is good to see Asia and Africa standing up for themselves. It can’t be right that the two strongest teams in the tournament have fewer games to play. If this is truly to be a global competition, it simply has to be a fair one in which all teams are treated equally.