When Arsene Wenger presented his controversial plans to restructure football, he talked of the need to close the gap between the continents. To strengthen his case, he cited the performance of the South American champions in last year’s Club World Cup, where in two games they had not created a chance, let alone scored a goal.
Now, in the next version of the tournament, that same team came just five minutes from taking the European champions to a penalty shootout. Chelsea were worthy winners, but Palmeiras of Brazil made them work all the way to the end of extra-time.
Chelsea have a long and glorious history, but it is undeniable that the club’s status as a global superpower, further cemented by this title, is a story in which Jose Mourinho played a huge part. Standing in the way of the Londoners on Saturday was Palmeiras coach Abel Ferreira, who on the world stage, has now established himself as a junior Mourinho.
Ferreira is a young Portuguese coach with the clean-cut looks of a young Mourinho — and something of the sour face as well — but he has rarely seemed happier than in the past few days. Once his side had avoided potential humiliation in the semifinal, beating Al Ahly of Egypt, then he could get on with what he enjoys best: game planning for glamorous opponents, working out how to neutralise them and then thinking of winning the game.
It worked in the closing stages of the Copa Libertadores, when he planned his way to triumph over Atletico Mineiro and then Flamengo. Chelsea demanded even more planning, and this time he took a leaf straight out of the Mourinho manual.
How was he going to control Chelsea’s firepower? He loves a tactical surprise, and this time he came out with another one.
The waspish little Rony has become his central striker, but for this game Ferreira did away altogether with the idea of centre-forwards. Rony operated almost as an auxiliary right-back, following Callum Hudson-Odoi deep into his own half — similar to the way that Mourinho deployed Samuel Eto’o for Inter Milan against Barcelona en route to a Treble in 2010. Rony took Hudson-Odoi, right-back Marcos Rocha took Kai Havertz and Palmeiras presented a sea of white shirts between the ball and their goal.
It was clear, then, that Ferreira was even less interested than usual in possession of the ball. He would defend deep and wait for the moment to strike.
The first half, at least until the closing stages, went as well as he could have hoped. There were flashes of threat from Palmeiras, when Dudu worried the Chelsea back line, and Palmeiras managed to hold the European champions in relative comfort. Without Jorginho to play the first pass forward, Chelsea’s play was sluggish.
Every time they managed to move the ball with rhythm, though, gaps opened up. They took the lead almost 10 minutes after half-time, Mateo Kovacic playing quickly to Huson-Odoi, whose fine left-foot cross was headed emphatically home by Romelu Lukaku.
Could Palmeiras react? How could they find a goal? For a few minutes it looked as if they might be swept away, but then they were level.
One of their secret weapons is the long throw of Marcos Rocha. After he hurled the ball into the box, Thiago Silva was adjudged to have handled, a decision made after VAR consultation. It may have been harsh. Silva’s arm made contact with the ball as a consequence of the head movement of Gustavo Gomez, but Silva jumped with his arm flailing, and this is far from the first time that this tendency has resulted in a needless penalty. Raphael Veiga kept his nerve from the spot, and Palmeiras had a soft equaliser.
They had nothing left to go and win the game, though. They fought and battled, and won many of the 50-50 balls, but all of that defensive work took its toll — especially on the attacking players. With the team defending so deep, they had to cover huge spaces, and, inevitably, they tired. The front three of Veiga, Rony and Dudu were all substituted, and it was clear that Palmeiras had little option other than to play for penalties.
But VAR giveth and VAR taketh away. Palmeiras had drawn level with a penalty awarded after a look at the video evidence, and now the match was decided with a similar event at the other end.
It was all hands on deck for the Brazilians as they defended their penalty area, and one of those arms — of centre-back Luan — blocked a goalbound volley from Cesar Azpilicueta. Havertz sent Weverton the wrong way, and this time there was no way back for Palmeiras.
There will be a way back for some in their ranks, though. Combative and versatile, left-footed midfielder Danilo is surely bound for big things. And Ferreira has done his reputation no harm, subjecting Chelsea to the Mourinho treatment and nearly taking them to a shootout.
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