Real Madrid will win the Club World Cup, but will it be worth it?
It was achieved with none of the emphatic style that was expected, but Real Madrid have made it through to the Club World Championship final.
Gremio should be overcome in the final, too, but at what cost to their season?
Already it has been made abundantly clear that this is a side not at their peak, and that was underlined during Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over UAE side Al Jazira.
What was meant to be a mere formality for the double Champions League winners proved to be a slog – and one that could have ended badly for the Spaniards. The rank outsiders took the lead and would have had a second with a little more composure on the break.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s typically assured finish set the stage for Gareth Bale to come off the bench and grab the winner after Karim Benzema had spurned chances, carrying Zinedine Zidane’s men through to the final, where they will face Gremio on Saturday.
The French coach upheld the integrity of the competition by selecting his strongest team, yet this was certainly not Madrid’s strongest performance.
But while the opportunity to be crowned world champions is naturally a tantalising one, there is a sense that this title is rather hollow.
While it is a tournament treated with the utmost severity in South America, there is not the same sense of importance echoed around the world, and particularly in Europe, where it is not even broadcast live on television in the UK--- such is the lack of appetite for it.
Whatever the outcome of the weekend’s match, it will carry little of the season-defining potential that El Clasico on December 23 will boast.
Given the choice of winning one fixture of the other, there will be few Madridistas who would plump for the clash against the Brazilian side, even if victory means that they will draw level with Barca on three Club World Cup titles since the format of the competition was brought into its current state in 2000.
The dominance of European clubs has meant that it is no longer a prize to be truly cherished. Only once in the last decade has the title gone elsewhere in the world, when Corinthians beat Chelsea in 2012.
And how many fans could reel off the list of runners-up in the competition since then, besides those of the victorious finalists? For the record, those teams are Raja Casablanca, San Lorenzo, River Plate and Kashima Antlers, though this information is unlikely to ever be of any use.
Of course, Madrid have played FIFA the requisite lip service by fielding all of their star players and emphasising the importance of having to be at their best to win every match, though in truth they can expect to be stretched further on a regular basis in La Liga – and, crucially, would derive more joy from winning that competition.
In short, whatever their public attitude may be, this competition is largely an unwelcome distraction for the Bernabeu side at a pivotal moment of their domestic campaign.
Fourth in the Primera Division standings, they host Barca while being a massive 11 points behind their great rivals as the Catalans have the advantage of stealing a further march on their opponents this weekend as they host struggling Deportivo La Coruna at Camp Nou.
If Barcelona were to win their next two games, they could legitimately feel that Madrid’s title challenge would be ended before Christmas arrives and before even half the season had been played – quite a prospect given the grim forecast following their Supercopa Espana loss to Los Blancos in August.
Aside from the problem of fatigue, caused both by two matches and the lengthy travelling involved to the Middle East, there is also the issue that if any Madrid player is sent off in Saturday’s showpiece against Gremio, they will face a suspension against Barcelona – a quirk that Zidane admitted was “strange”.
Madrid’s ailing season cannot be saved in the next 10 days, though much of it could be lost if results were to be adverse. Even winning the world championship may not be enough to rescue Zidane from the infinitely high demands in the Spanish capital if the Clasico goes wrong.