The bid by Palmeiras of Brazil to win a FIFA Club World Cup started all the way back in early March with a win in the Copa Libertadores away to Tigre of Argentina. And 11 months later it came to a sad and tame conclusion with a 1-0 defeat to Tigres of Mexico in the semi-final of the tournament.
Ever since FIFA launched the current format of the competition back in 2005, the semi-final has been a form of torture for the South American champions. They are so close to paradise, but, in an era when the continent loses its best players to Europe, they are often simply not set up to take the game to the opposition.
This defeat for Palmeiras is the fifth time that the Libertadores winners have fallen at this stage. And this may even be the one that hurts most — for three reasons.
The first is that Palmeiras wanted the title so much. All of their local rivals — Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Santos – have previously been world champions. Palmeiras fans were desperate to end the mockery from neighbours and workmates.
Second, because this was a type of game that Palmeiras might have enjoyed. They are a counter-attacking side, and for the first time in the history of the current format, the South American champions were allowed to play on the counter.
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Tigres took the initiative, their Brazilian coach Ricardo Ferretti chose the same XI that he used after half-time in Thursday’s 2-1 win over Ulsan Hyundai. But with a big difference.
He had observed the efficient way that, in the final of the Libertadores, Palmeiras had marked Marinho, the left-footed right-winger of Santos. And so Ferretti switched his wingers, the right-footed Javier Aquino playing on the right, and the left-footed Luis Quinones on the left.They stretched the Palmeiras defence, and together with attacking right-back Luis Rodriguez, they ensured early domination for their side. Palmeiras keeper Weverton produced a wonderful save diving to his left to block a header from striker Carlos Gonzalez, meeting a Rodriguez cross.
Palmeiras reacted with their trademark move. They looked for long diagonal switches to the left, where winger Rony and left-back Matias Vina sought to get behind the defensive line. It brought one clear chance, Vina passing on for a Rony shot that was scrambled clear by keeper Nahuel Guzman.
But — action and reaction — when Palmeiras moved up the field they inevitably opened up space. Andre-Pierre Gignac, operating intelligently behind Gonzalez, moved out left to attack the weaker flank of the Palmeiras defence. The Frenchman teamed up with the Colombian Quinones, whose long-legged dribbling drove the Brazilian defence to distraction all through the game, and Tigres were quickly back in the ascendency. Weverton produced two more fine saves, and the Mexicans were well worth their lead when it came some eight minutes after half-time.
Tigres moved the ball sharply down the right, Rodriguez had drifted in field and he looked to slip Gonzalez behind the defence. Palmeiras centre-back Luan panicked and pulled him back. It was a clear penalty, and Gignac made no mistake. Palmeiras had well over 40 minutes to get back on level terms, and Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira rang the changes. On came the veteran Felipe Melo to play long from centre field. On came the left-footed Gustavo Scarpa to strike the ball into the penalty box. But time and time again they fell foul of a cute Tigres offside trap — a defensive technique rarely used in South America.
Palmeiras had memories of the goal that won the Libertadores, 10 minutes into stoppage time. And they nearly saved themselves when substitute Willian crossed low from the left. Luiz Adriano failed to get enough contact on his flick, but even then, it could have been an own goal. The ball came off Rodriguez and bobbled just wide.
Thereafter there was huff and puff but next to no clarity, and the paucity of their attacking repertoire was deeply disappointing. And worrying. The third reason for South American despair is that this match — with the first Mexican team through to the final of the Club World Cup — could be a pointer to the future.
A merger between MLS and the Mexican league would seem to be more than a proposal. It carries with it the possibility of a North American pole to rival European domination — pushing South America further down the pole.
The sale late last week of Sao Paulo’s Brenner is a case in point. He is a young striker on the up — and he is heading to FC Cincinnati. The MLS has plucked some big-name talents from Argentina, Uruguay and countries further north. The Brenner deal, though, will make Brazil sit up and take notice.
There is still a shot to salvage some glory for Palmeiras. They are back in action in Thursday’s third-place play-off. Should Bayern Munich lose on Monday to Al Ahly of Egypt then the Brazilians will be delighted to have a crack at the holders of the Champions League. They also still have the two-legged final of the Brazilian Cup to dispute against Gremio. But there will be deep disappointment — and a little concern — at the fact that they won’t be competing for a world title.