Real Madrid can't afford to overlook Gremio in Club World Cup with Clasico next
Real Madrid will seek to retain their Club World Cup title against Brazilian side Gremio on Saturday in the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi after both sides were made to work harder than expected to reach the showpiece game.
Zinedine Zidane's Real were extremely fortunate to get past Al-Jazira in the semi-finals while Gremio laboured to victory over Mexican outfit Pachuca, courtesy of a wonder goal in extra time from substitute Everton.
Renato "Gaucho" Portaluppi, who may or may not have been a better player than Cristiano Ronaldo, has proven his managerial mettle by leading the Tricolor to a first Copa do Brasil since 2001 and the Copa Libertadores after a 22-year hiatus.
The midfield architect of much of Gremio's success, Arthur, who has attracted mildly controversial interest from Barcelona, missed out on the Club World Cup after picking up an ankle injury in the second leg of the Libertadores final against Lanus.
The winner of the Brasileiro Best Newcomer Award for 2017 chalked up a 93.1-percent pass success rate in the Brazilian top division last season and his absence in Abu Dhabi forced Renato into a restructure against Pachuca, the former Brazil winger shelving his preferred passing approach for a more direct style that with quick full-backs and wingers like Bruno Cortez, Edilson, Fernandinho and Ramiro could cause Madrid plenty of problems at the back.
Zidane will be fully aware that Gremio are capable of matching his side's counter-attacking ability and the Real boss will be far more cautious against the Brazilians than he was against Al-Jazira, a game he approached with the bravado of someone entering a chilli-eating contest in white flannel trousers.
That approach almost came back to bite Zidane in the backside but there is another more pressing concern on Saturday: bizarrely, a red card in the Club World Cup final will rule the player in question out of next weekend's crunch Clasico fixture, always a concern when Sergio Ramos is on the pitch and a loophole Gremio will be happy to exploit to their advantage after racking up 18 fouls against Pachuca.
Zidane said before the game against Al-Jazira that the situation "could influence our thinking" but the Frenchman has other selection considerations to ponder. Gareth Bale, for the second time in an injury-ravaged season, came off the bench against Al-Jazira in a decisive cameo and although it is not exactly what Florentino Perez has in mind for a €100 million footballer the Welshman could be used as an impact substitute again against Gremio with the Clasico in mind.
At the back, Ramos will start despite the possibility of missing the Clasico, largely to counter the aerial threat of well-travelled Paraguay international striker Lucas Barrios, who has the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the Russian Premier League and Chinese Super League on his CV.
The 33-year-old is fundamental to Renato's game plan, driving a wedge between the opposition central defenders to allow Luan, a key member of Brazil's 2016 Olympics-winning squad, to exploit the gaps.
BBC Brazil football expert, Fernando Kallas, sums up Gremio's chances of an upset: "The absence of Arthur, who is the best midfielder to come out of Brazil's youth system since Paulinho, rules out any chance of Gremio trying to play their game against Madrid. Renato Gaucho knows that his only chance is on the counter, shutting up shop at the back and trusting to the speed of Everton, Fernandinho, Luan and Ramiro.
"Recent history has proven that this is the only way for a modest Latin American club to beat one of Europe's heavyweights. In the last 15 years it has happened only four times: Boca beat Milan on penalties in 2003 and Sao Paulo, Internacional and Corinthians all won by a single goal against Liverpool, Barca and Chelsea. Gremio will hold on as best they can and look to Luan for a miracle."
After the scare provided by Al-Jazira, who merited more from a game marred by the intervention of the much-maligned VAR system, Zidane will task his side with hitting early and decisively in the Zayed Sports City Stadium. Allowing Gremio to settle into the game could lead to another tough assignment Madrid could do without in a Clasico week. The spectre of Barcelona, and a potential 14-point deficit on the current Liga leaders going into the winter break, will loom as large as the South American champions on Saturday.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.