Cristiano Ronaldo ends 2016 in style as Real Madrid become world champions
Three quick thoughts after Real Madrid won the 2016 Club World Cup by beating Kashima Antlers 4-2 in extra time at the International Stadium Yokohama on Sunday.
1. Madrid crowned world champions
Cristiano Ronaldo scored another hat trick as Real Madrid came from behind to beat Japan's Kashima Antlers 4-2 in a much more exciting than was expected Club World Cup 2016 final. For a long time it looked like Ronaldo and his galactico colleagues were going to embarrassed -- as the rank outsiders Kashima matched their more illustrious opponents impressively.
Ronaldo's second-half penalty took the game to extra time, where the Portuguese was then able to take the glory by completing a first ever hat trick in this format of the Club World Cup. It meant Madrid finished 2016 by becoming world champions to add to their Champions League and UEFA Super Cup triumphs earlier in the year.
It seemed that Madrid were set for an easy victory when Karim Benzema converted a rebound to put them ahead on just nine minutes. But Kashima midfielder Gaku Shibasaki caused a surprise on the stroke of half-time before firing his side in front early in the second half. On both occasions the defending from Madrid should have been a lot better, while the two finishes from the Japan international were excellent.
Ronaldo's penalty equalised the game on the hour mark, but Madrid looked increasingly exhausted as normal time dragged on. Blancos captain Sergio Ramos was very fortunate not to be sent off, and goalkeeper Keylor Navas twice saved his side. Kashima's Yasushi Endo also missed a super chance to win the trophy with the last kick of normal time when he slashed wide from close range with the goal gaping.
In the end, Ronaldo and his teammates were able to celebrate yet another trophy won in extra time, but they should mostly have been feeling relief at avoiding what could have been a world-class embarrassment.
2. Benzema does the work, Ronaldo takes the glory
If the proverbial alien had come down from the sky and watched this game, they would have been hard-pressed to name the newly crowned best player on the planet this year. But 2016 ends with Ronaldo as the first player ever to win the Ballon d'Or, Champions League, European Championship and Club World Cup in the same year -- and with him stealing the headlines in this tournament's final.
Benzema was clearly Madrid's best player for most of the game, with the Frenchman snapping up the opening goal and also being involved in most of his team's best moves. Ronaldo was spending all his time at centre-forward, trying fancy tricks which did not come off, while missing a number of gilt-edged chances to put Kashima away at different times.
Meanwhile, Benzema was dropping deep and acting as the playmaker to knit his team together. Their roles were summarised perfectly in the game's key goal, when the former Lyon man threaded a perfect through ball behind the Kashima defence for Ronaldo to then expertly finish past Hitoshi Sogahata. The Kashima keeper also had a claim to be man of the match, but on this occasion could do nothing.
Ronaldo took the applause when he was replaced late on in Zidane's fourth substitution of the game. Once more the soon to be 32 year old had looked far from sharp at times - but he had taken his goals very well, and the glory was his.
3. More VAR controversy
In years to come the 2016 Club World Cup tournament will be remembered most for controversy around the trialling of video assistant referee (VAR) technology. The new system was heavily criticised by Madrid midfielder Luka Modric after Thursday's semifinal, although Zidane and Ramos subsequently said it needed to be given time to settle in, and that you could not hold back progress even if you wanted to.
Madrid were thankful more than once during Sunday's final that Zambian official Janny Sikazwe looked reluctant to make use of the technological option he had. The referee ignored pleas from the Kashima players to consult the VAR in a penalty incident, when replays appeared to show Lucas Vazquez had gone down quite easily. There was also controversy when Ramos escaped a second yellow card for stopping a counter-attack late in normal time.
All this was very harsh on reigning Japanese champions Kashima, who only gained entrance to the tournament as hosts, but then beat the champions of champions Oceania, Africa and South America 7-1 on aggregate to become the first Asian team to reach the competition's final. And although their all Japanese starting XI was clearly not on Madrid's level in terms of individual quality, the players put on an excellent showing in front of the 68,742 crowd and were very unlucky not to win in normal time.
It is now nine European victories in the past 10 playings of the Club World Cup. But Kashima came very close to being the first ever Asian side to lift the trophy.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan