Real's Club World Cup win vs. Gremio highlights football's chasm in quality
Gremio had few pretensions of outplaying Real Madrid in the final of the Club World Cup. Their aim was to outscore them. But hard though they fought, they could not muster a single shot on target as they fell to a single-goal defeat that could have been much heavier.
The game plan of the South American champions was clear: The focus was on aggressive defence -- at one point, too aggressive. Before a Gremio player had even touched the ball, centre-back Pedro Geromel went into the Real half to rake his studs down the calf of Cristiano Ronaldo. Extraordinarily, he escaped sanction.
Happily, it was not indicative of what was to come: a game played in a good spirit, although there was plenty at stake for both sides -- and especially for Gremio. This tournament is taken very seriously in South America, and around 7,000 fans had made their way to Abu Dhabi to cheer on the Brazilians.
As expected, Real Madrid had the majority of possession. For 20 minutes or so, the intensity of Gremio's marking kept the Spaniards at bay. But it was an effort they would clearly be unable to keep up for the full 90 minutes, and space began to open up for Real to press home their advantage.
Geromel and his centre-back partner Walter Kannemann were frequently at full stretch, beating back waves of white-shirted attacks. Madrid did not help their cause by insisting on over-elaborate attempts to walk the ball into the back of the net. But as the pressure grew, something had to give. In the end, the breakthrough came from a free kick, some 22 metres from goal. Ronaldo stepped up and fired through a hole in the defensive wall between Luan and centre-forward Lucas Barrios.
Gremio's decision to play with a centre-forward may well have been a mistake. The team might have done better to go with pace on the counterattack to give some relief to a defence driven ever deeper. On came Everton, scorer of their goal in the semifinal, to operate wide on the left, with Fernandinho on the other flank. There were possibilities of an opening, but Gremio snatched at their opportunities, and Real soon bolted the door when Lucas Vazquez came on to operate wide on the right. Gremio's only shot of the night was a first-half free kick from Edilson, which swerved over the bar.
Madrid, meanwhile, were buoyed by their goal and started making the ball fizz. Ronaldo had a fine goal ruled out for a very tight offside decision, the outstanding Luka Modric had a shot tipped onto the post, and both Ronaldo and substitute Gareth Bale had shots well saved by Marcelo Grohe.
The Club World Cup, then, performed its annual role of highlighting the chasm that now exists between top-level European club football and the rest of the planet. The final of the tournament has produced very few -- if any -- even battles between teams seeking to outplay each other, and subsequently it's very difficult to attract the attention of the neutral.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.