This was supposed to be River Plate’s best opportunity to break Europe’s monopoly over the Club World Cup against a struggling Real Madrid side, who are yet to pay Kashima Antlers in their semi-final. Instead the Copa Libertadores champions looked every inch a side that has been celebrating the most famous victory in their history only a little over a week ago as they slumped to defeat against Al Ain on Tuesday.
Local club Al Ain were heavy underdogs going in against River despite warming up with victories over Wellington on penalties and then African Champions League winners Esperance de Tunis but that didn’t prevent the UAE club taking a shock lead.
River’s sluggish start saw a corner from the right helped on by striker Marcus Berg and squeezing through Franco Armani’s legs, Al Ain had themselves a dream start inside three minutes.
The goal momentarily appeared to wake River and two goals by Rafael Santos Borré had Marcelo Gallardo’s side back in front within quarter of an hour.
However their revival was short-lived and River soon dropped back off the pace and invited Al Ain to have another go – only a narrow offside decision courtesy of VAR denied the hosts an equaliser before the break.
Even a half time break and no doubt an animated pep talk from Gallardo could stir River and soon after the restart Al Ain were level, Brazilian forward Caio finding space behind Gonzalo Montiel to cut inside Jonathan Maidana and rifle the ball past Armani.
Once more an Al Ain goal drew something of a response from River but this time the Libertadores champions couldn’t find a way past the impressive Khalid Eisa. The goalkeeper made two excellent stops to deny Santos Borré a hat-trick and even when River were awarded a penalty for a foul on Milton Casco, the usually reliable Gonzalo Martínez smashed his effort against the crossbar.
River looked the more likely winners but in extra time but were still far from at their best and the few half chances created were stopped by Eisa. In fact it was his opposite number Armani forced into action with a tremendous point blank save late on.
With penalties required to separate the sides and book a spot in the final, Al Ain were perfect. All five managed to find their way past Armani and so when Enzo Pérez, with River’s fifth, saw Eisa guess correctly and palm the ball clear, Al Ain were victorious.
While Argentine clubs don’t have a good record against European opposition in the final, no club has failed to reach that stage since the Club World Cup’s inception in 2000. Nothing can diminish River’s victory over Boca Juniors less than two weeks ago but talk of prematurely upsetting Real Madrid now looks very foolish.