Real Madrid win Club World Cup as Ronaldo again stars on the big stage
Three quick thoughts as Real Madrid retain the Club World Cup by beating Gremio 1-0 in Saturday's final in Abu Dhabi.
1. Ronaldo again the matchwinner
Cristiano Ronaldo was again the matchwinner as Real Madrid retained the Club World Cup with a very comfortable 1-0 victory against a battling but limited Gremio side at Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City Stadium on Saturday evening.
Madrid dominated possession throughout the first half without really testing Gremio goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe, with Ronaldo making the breakthrough eight minutes after half-time with a long-range free kick.
Copa Libertadores' holders Gremio then had to come out and play a bit more, but they were unable to shift Madrid's grip on the game. Ronaldo, Luka Modric and substitute Gareth Bale came close to a second, and taking chances remains a problem for Zinedine Zidane's side, but one goal was always enough tonight.
Through the first half, Modric and Isco both looked sharp and were working the ball forward well through midfield, but it was all happening in front of a well-organised and deep-set Gremio defence. When Ronaldo did get the ball in space in the box, he opted to try to cut inside rather than shoot, and he was quickly closed down by the impressive Walter Kannemann. Just as in the semifinal against Al Jazira, they were dominating without being able to find a way through.
The one traffic continued after the break, with Ronaldo sending a 25-yarder well wide with Madrid's first chance of the half. But the 32-year-old is nothing if not persistent, and when the opener came, it was all his own work.
Ronaldo won the free kick himself by tricking Jailson in an ideal position 25 yards out. The Portugal captain's shot then went straight through the Gremio wall and just inside the post. Although the defenders in the wall will not enjoy watching the replay, the ball was powerfully struck, and goalkeeper Grohe had no chance at all. Ronaldo's set-piece dominance at the Bernabeu is often questioned by outsiders, but he now has 32 free kick goals for the club, in four different competitions.
As Madrid went for 2-0, the goal scorer had the ball in the net again soon afterward, with the officials ruling it out for a Karim Benzema offside. Modric then hit a post, and Ronaldo also forced an excellent save from Grohe late on.
Just as in last year's CWC final victory over Kashima Antlers in Japan, it was their talisman who did the needful in the final. He really does like delivering when the spotlight is on.
2. Bale ready to come in for the Clasico
Zidane named the same XI, which got them here by winning the Champions League in Cardiff last June. The all-round performance here was not anywhere close to their 4-1 dismantling of Juventus in Cardiff, and although they did enough to dominate the game and deserve their win, they still need to rediscover their best form, and quickly.
The biggest issue remains the team's problems in front of goal. Zidane flat out refuses to criticise his players in public, but he must be wondering how he can shake things up a bit. Benzema again looked very low on confidence tonight, again passing up a number of excellent opportunities to score, while Isco was comfortable in possession without really creating anything before he was the first man substituted on the hour.
In Wednesday's semifinal, again fit Gareth Bale performed a rescue act off the bench, and the Wales winger looked sharp as a substitute here again, almost making it 2-0 with a beauty of a curler off his left foot from 20 yards that was tipped over by Grohe, and then racing 50 yards on the break to set up a chance which Modric blazed over.
Points dropped earlier in the season mean Madrid must beat Barcelona in next Saturday's Clasico to stay in the La Liga title race. Zidane must try something different next weekend -- and if Bale is fit to start, then he should.
3. Gremio limitations shown up
All three South American wins in the CWC in its current format have been battling 1-0s, and Gremio clearly thought their best chances were to following a similar plan. Captain Pedro Geromel set the tone after 60 seconds with a crunching foul on Ronaldo, inexplicably escaping a booking at least, while central defensive partner Kannemann knocked over Modric soon afterward.
Well protected by their midfield, the Gremio centre-backs were both really impressive, giving Ronaldo and Benzema very little space in open play. Reported Arsenal and Liverpool target Luan looked dangerous at times on the break, but his work was being done a long way from goal, and their injured Copa Libertadores star Arthur was badly missed.
Ronaldo's free kick meant Gremio tried to change their tactics early in the second half, and looked to attack. But they were just unable to get a hold of the ball, with Modric, as usual, controlling the tempo and direction of play.
Given the financial disparities between South American and European football, their approach was understandable, but they started looking for a 1-0, and a 1-0 (if the wrong way) is what they got.
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