In rhythm Gremio need to survive Pachuca semifinal to get their shot at Madrid
The Club World Cup may be on the way out, but it remains a big deal in South America. It is the moment when the representatives of the continent, the winners of the Copa Libertadores, dream of putting one over on the holders of the UEFA Champions League. This year the format of the Libertadores has changed -- and it will be interesting to see the impact this has on Gremio's challenge to be crowned world champions.
Previously the Libertadores came to a climax in June or July. The South American champions had months to dwell on the Club World Cup. This had pros and cons.
On the one hand, it gave them months of preparation time. They could carry out an in-depth study of the European champions, the team they expected and hoped to meet in the final.
But it could also take the edge off their game. Many Libertadores winners have coasted through the second half of the year, effectively on extended holiday while they dream of beating the Europeans. It also gave them months to fret about the semifinal, the match that stood between them and the gates of paradise. There could be few let downs bigger, nor more humiliating, than spending months dreaming of beating the Europeans only to fall to the African or Asian representative.
Indeed, the semifinal has always been difficult for the South American side. While the Europeans have breezed through it without breaking sweat, the South Americans have been biting their nails and even, on three occasions, lamenting their fate at the end of the match.
In part this is technical.
At the turn of the century the South Americans were still strong enough to meet European teams on equal terms. The opening of the global market in footballers has altered the balance. The best South American players now play for the European teams. The South Americans make do with what is left. Their way of winning, of beating the Europeans, has recognised their inferiority, covering up, holding on and setting out to win by a single goal -- as the Brazilian trio of Sao Paulo, Internacional and Corinthians all did to win the trophy. But it is a model of play less suited to the semifinal match, where they are supposed to take the initiative.
But there is also clearly a psychological component. Terrified of missing out on the big day, the semifinal looms large as a potential pitfall.
At least Gremio, this year's Libertadores winner, have had less time to fret. The 2017 Libertadores, instead of coming to a close in the middle of the year, went all the way to the end of November. No sooner had Gremio finished celebrating their 3-1 aggregate win over Lanus of Argentina than they were on their way to the Arab Emirates.
Gremio, then, are in rhythm. And they also have the prospect of an open game on Tuesday against Pachuca of Mexico, the CONCACAF representative. Their opponents have a style of play that is not foreign to them.
But they also pay a price for rushing straight from the Libertadores final to the Club World Cup. Just before half-time in the second leg against Lanus, midfielder Arthur picked up an ankle injury. He tried to keep going after the break, but it was soon obvious that he would have to be substituted. From the moment that he left the field, Gremio lost their fluency. And the injury has proved severe enough to keep him out of the Club World Cup.
So now, without Arthur, Gremio seek to maintain their momentum, overcome Pachuca and then make a grab for glory in a probable final against Real Madrid.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.