"Torment in the desert" was the headline of Thursday’s Madrid-based Marca newspaper after the Spanish, European and reigning world champions struggled to overcome Al Jazira in the Fifa Club World Cup semi-final.
In a surreal game, Madrid dominated, with 17 first-half shots and had two goals disallowed, yet were a goal down at half time after Al Jazira scored from their first on target effort.
That soon looked to be 2-0 down, only for the second Al Jazira goal to be ruled offside. The use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) only added to the confusion, but for a brief moment we appeared to be looking at one of the greatest upsets in history.
Madrid came back with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and substitute Gareth Bale, who won the game with an 81st minute effort, earning the Welshman the headline "Gareth Bale, the saviour". Bale needed it. He has not been short of critics because of his injuries, nor transfer speculation linking him with a move.
Credit in Spain is given to Al Jazira and their veteran goalkeeper Ali Khaseif. They did themselves proud, but it’s Madrid, as expected, who will play in Saturday’s final against South American champions Gremio.
Ronaldo’s goal means he is already the leading all-time scorer in the World Club Cup with six, the first of those goals coming as a Manchester United player in 2008. He is also the all-time top scorer in the European Championship, Portugal’s national team, the Uefa Champions League, for Real Madrid and all European club competitions.
The Portuguese will look to add to his tally against South American champions Gremio as Madrid target a club record five trophies in a calendar year.
Only Barcelona, who won all six trophies they entered under Pep Guardiola in 2009, have ever won more, though Lionel Messi’s extra time goal in the Club World Cup final against Estudiantes still causes massive irritation in La Plata. The brother of Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo, for one, refused to forgive Messi for scoring an “unlawful goal against my team".
The only trophy Madrid haven’t lifted in 2017 is the Copa del Rey, won by Barcelona, but Madrid have been football’s best team this year, holding their nerve in La Liga even after Barca won at the Bernabeu, defeating Bayern Munich in two epic Uefa Champions League semi-final clashes and outclassing Juventus in the final, just as they did against Manchester United in the Super Cup final. The United players in the dressing room after that match agreed that Madrid set the benchmark they were hoping to reach.
Andy Mitten: Gremio used to being underdogs
Madrid haven't always hit those heights since. They let Alvaro Morata, Pepe and James Rodriguez leave and boldly replaced them with youngsters who need time. Dropped points in, most surprisingly at the Bernabeu which celebrates 70 years on Thursday, has left them eight points behind Barcelona in La Liga and they finished second in their Champions League group. Barcelona are their first opponents when they return to Spain a week on Saturday.
Zidane’s side are still the team to beat in world football. They are also hoping to become the first team to retain the Club World Cup since its new format was introduced in 2000. Sao Paulo won the preceding Intercontinental Cup between the champions of Europe and South America in 1992 and 1993. AC Milan also won that competition in 1989 and 1990.
Gremio have talent and a large travelling support, but nowhere near Madrid’s quality. But then the same could have been said of Al Jazira – and look at the shock they nearly caused.