John Duerden says that it’s about time Asia’s representative won the Club World Cup.
Japan’s women won the 2011 World Cup and can lay a serious claim to be the best national team that Asia has ever had but there have been no male equivalent to win a senior global title. The closest would be South Korea’s run to the last four at the 2002 World Cup.
When it comes to club football however, then there is one that came even closer to glory.
At the 2016 Club World Cup, with 30 minutes of the final remaining, Kashima Antlers were 2-1 ahead against Real Madrid. Then a certain Cristiano Ronaldo intervened and grabbed a hat-trick to give the Spanish team a 4-2 win and the global title. It was nice while it lasted.
Kashima have never won the Asian Champions League but were there as the representative of the host nation. Fast forward 12 months and Al Jazira are playing the same role in the United Arab Emirates. On Wednesday evening in the team’s hometown of Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates champions will take on the mighty Real Madrid.
The 12-time European champions, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – clubs in the world will feature a whole host of stars and world famous names that will pit their considerable wits against a team that finished bottom of their 2017 Asian Champions League with just two points in six games.
Nobody is giving Al Jazira a chance but stranger things have happened in football. It would be the best club result in Asian football history. It would be a huge boost for the reputation of West Asian football and the whole continent in general. It would, of course, be put down to the failings of the European team by the international media. That doesn’t matter.
It would also give UAE football a boost. The nation is still coming to terms with a disappointing World Cup qualification campaign. The road to Russia 2018 started in style with a win in Japan but then it all faded quite badly and the UAE were out of contention long before the end. For a team that finished third at the 2015 Asian Cup, it wasn’t good enough.
Al Jazira can put a spring back into the step of the nation and perhaps provide a little confidence ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup which comes to the country in 13 months. The question is: can it happen?
It would be a major shock of course but there is some cause for optimism. Real Madrid may have completed their continental dozen but have not been in the best of form this season. At the moment, they are in a lowly fourth place in La Liga and a massive –for them — eight points behind Barcelona. In the UEFA Champions League, they reached the second round but were a long way behind group winners Tottenham Hotspur. At the moment, most would expect PSG to win their second round clash.
It remains to be seen which Madrid turns up. European teams can sometimes be a little ambivalent about this competition despite winning nine of the last ten editions and it is to be hoped that anything less than a 100% performance will be pounced upon by the hosts, roared on by a big and passionate crowd.
So far, Al Jazira have defeated Auckland City 1-0 in the play-off and then defeated Asian champions Urawa Reds by the same scoreline. There was some luck against the New Zealanders but the UAE team defended well against the Japanese. Coach Henk Ten Cate has his team well-organised and well-drilled. They have been defending for 180 minutes this week already and another 90 is no problem.
#ClubWC | FT
🇦🇪@aljazira_uae 1-0 @REDSOFFICIAL 🇯🇵
Ali Mabkhout slots home to send the UAE champions into the semi-final, to the delight of the home fanshttps://t.co/jBBlY3OReE pic.twitter.com/72h26B5cUP
— #ClubWC 🇦🇪🏆 (@FIFAcom) December 9, 2017
And then there is the form of the two goalscorers so far. Brazilian striker Romarinho may not be as famous as some of Madrid’s imports but showed against Auckland that he knows where the goal is. He also set up Ali Mabkhout for the winner against Urawa. The UAE striker is one of the best in the Asian business. Now he is not going to be able to showcase his talents at the 2018 World Cup, this is a big a stage as he is going to get for a while at least. If he can do the business against the European champions then who knows where the 27 year-old sharpshooter may end up?
There is always a chance in football. Nineteen times out of 20, Real Madrid win this game but this could be that other time. With Asia hoping to have a fine World Cup in six months time, the whole continent should be willing Al Jazira on tonight against Real Madrid. It can be done.