Gareth Bale climbed off the bench to save Real Madrid from the humiliation of needing extra time to beat Abu Dhabi side Al Jazira in a bizarre World Club Cup semi-final.
Bale scored the winner nine minutes from time to give his team victory. Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 15th goal of the season to equalize Al Jazira’s shock opener.
It was his sixth goal in the World Club Cup taking him past the record of five he previously held with Leo Messi and Luis Suarez.
Romarinho’s first-half goal had first stunned the European Champions in a game riddled with Video Assistant Refereeing chaos, complacent Madrid defending and wasteful finishing.
Ronaldo could have scored three in the first 10 minutes. First he had a free header from an Isco cross. Ali Khasif got down well to save on his line. The home team’s keeper then pushed a Ronaldo header on to his bar as Real Madrid dominated. And Ronaldo was foiled again by Khasif moments later perhaps thinking he couldn’t miss. The complacency transferred to the other end of the pitch and Al Jazira nearly had their first chance but their final pass went astray, it was an omen for what was to come.
Khasif was keeping his team in the game and he sprung brilliantly to his left to palm away a Karim Benzema header. It could have been four by now. The hero keeper needed treatment on what looked like a thigh injury but he stayed on and when Luka Modric flashed a shot his way again the 30-year-old keeper got down well to save. Not only was he making saves, he was a magnet for the ball. Achraf was the next to go close with a shot that went straight to the keeper.
When finally Madrid beat the keeper with a Benzema header going in from Isco’s cross, the referee cut short the celebrations by ruling out the goal for a push from Ronaldo on Mohammed Ayed.
Then when Madrid beat Khasif, and the referee, they still couldn’t get past the Video Referee Assistant (VAR). Casemiro scored the goal but the match official Sandro Ricci changed his mind three times. First he ruled the goal out, then he appeared to give it after consultation via earpiece with assistants huddled around three screens in the Zayed Sports City Stadium. The players began to make their way back to the centre-circle but the referee had not finished changing his mind and he wanted to see the reply for himself.
Benzema was finally adjudged offside and the goal was not given. The Frenchman was in an offside position although he was arguably not interfering with play as Casemiro headed in. Al Jazira coach Henk ten Cate, formerly of Barcelona, could not help but laugh on the touchline. Madrid were furious but worse was to come.
They dozed through an Al Jazira counter-attack with Achraf, Casemiro and Varane all culpable and Romarinho cooly-slotted the ball past Keylor Navas. The Brazilian with the most Brazilian of names had stunned the European Champions and Al Jazira were 1-0 up. Things stayed that way until the break and Casemiro did himself no favours by changing shirts with the goalscorer as the two walked off the pitch.
Three minutes into the second half and things looked to have taken another farcical turn for the worse for Real Madrid. Inexplicably they had all 10 outfield players in Al Jazira’s half and when Ali Mabkhout and Mbark Boussoufa raced away to score they did so with literally no defence to beat.
Mabkhout only made one mistake, he rolled the ball to Boussoufa when his team-mate was offside. The referee did not spot it and neither did the linesman but the VAR did and Madrid were off the hook.
Ronaldo took full advantage. By now Khasif had hobbled off and substitute keeper Khaled Al Senaani’s first move was to pick the ball out of the net. Luka Modric played the ball through to Ronaldo and he shot past the new keeper to make it 1-1.
Benzema should then have put his team ahead but first he shot instead of picking out Ronaldo and then hit the post. Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez then came on for Isco and Mateo Kovacic and Asensio put another goal on a plate for Benzema who leant back and planted his shot on to the bar.
Madrid had now had 27 shots in the game, but only one had been made to count. With 10 minutes left Zinedine Zidane could take no more of Benzema’s poor finishing and on went Bale. He scored with his first touch.
Vazquez pulled the ball back from the right and Bale side-footed it into the corner. Ronaldo did his best to help it on its way but made no contact with his attempted back-heel and so Bale it was who took plaudits as Madrid celebrated reaching the final of World Club Cup.
It was meant to be easy but it was anything but. They will need to be much better to beat Gremio in the final on Saturday. Bale should maybe start. Madrid are in desperate need of someone who can finish.