December 19 – Within days of euphorically picking up the Copa Libertadores title against arch-rivals Boca Juniors, Argentinian giants River Plate were brought embarrassing down to earth on Tuesday when they suffered a shock defeat to hosts Al Ain in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
The hosts caused a monumental upset by winning 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw after extra time.
With the football world focussing on Jose Mourinho’s sacking, Asia was gripped by the most seismic result in the history of UAE football and perhaps the continent as a whole.
Swedish striker Marcus Berg gave Al Ain a surprise lead but the Copa Libertadores winners hit back through two Rafael Santos Borre strikes in the first half. Brazilian forward Caio stroked in the equaliser, with River Plate’s Gonzalo Martinez then missing a hugely costly second-half penalty before the hosts clinched a nerve-wracking penalty shootout..
Holders Real Madrid face Asian Champions League winners Kashima Antlers from Japan in the second semi-final today for the right to face Al Ain in Saturday’s final in Abu Dhabi.
River were massive favourites to progress after winning the South American continental title in Madrid, a match moved 6,000 miles from Argentina after the original game was twice postponed.
To illustrate the scale of Al Ain’s Mission Impossible victory, they only managed to squeeze past Oceania champions Team Wellington, a team of part-timers, in the first round – also on penalties.
Yet six days later, they had become the pride of a nation and the entire Asian continent, a huge boost ahead of next month’s Asian Cup competition.
“We showed that in football, everything is possible when you believe, when you fight, when you support each other, when you respect each other,” Zoran Mamic, Al Ain’s manager, said.
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