River Plate secured their place in the final of the Club World Cup in Osaka on Wednesday, beating Hiroshima Sanfrecce 1-0 to set up a potential showdown with Barcelona.
The Copa Libertadores winners were made to work hard for their win, as the Japanese giants defended gamely, but eventually Lucas Alario was able to nod home a priceless goal 18 minutes from time after a goalkeeping error.
Here's a look at the winning goal, courtesy of Fantasia Futbol:
Fantasía Fútbol @FantasiaFutbol
Lucas Alario. https://t.co/4wL0KtZL792015-12-16 12:04:46
European champions Barcelona get their campaign underway when they face AFC Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrande in Yokohama on Thursday, a game in which they'll be heavy favourites.
Although this competition doesn’t command too much prestige among European football fans, as SuporterFC (h/t FourFourTweet) showed, the River fanatics travelled in their thousands to see their team begin their quest to be crowned as club world champions:
15,000 River Plate fans have travelled to Japan for the Club World Cup semi-final against Sanfrecce Hiroshima. https://t.co/OFZRSTCHZu2015-12-16 11:07:52
The clash fell into an expected pattern early on, with Sanfrecce happy to sit deep, allowing River possession of the ball and seeking to spring into action on the counter-attack.
It meant the South American champions were able to construct some aesthetic segments of play, but overall, River were well marshalled by their less illustrious opponents, who were well backed by the Hiroshima crowd.
Argentine football expert Sam Kelly outlined what has been a familiar struggle for South American sides in this competition:
Sam Kelly @HEGS_com
So far it's been the familiar pattern of South American sides at this stage; dominating but struggling to break through.2015-12-16 10:55:52
Indeed, for all of the pretty patterns put together by River, it was the J-League champions who carved out the better opportunities, with goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero forced into some fine saves. Yusuke Minagawa forced a brilliant parry from the River stopper with a rasping effort and then had to be on hand to palm a free-kick away.
It meant River were looking a little vulnerable as the referee called time on the first half. Bleacher Report’s Sam Tighe summed up what had been an intriguing 45 minutes:
Sam Tighe @stighefootball
HT Sanfrecce 0-0 River. River w/ all the ball, Sanfrecce with the clear chances on counter. Maidana-Balanta suspect. Barovero heroic.2015-12-16 11:19:34
After the break, the Copa Libertadores champions came out with renewed endeavour, moving the ball quickly and seeking to unpick a tight defence. Rodrigo Mora spurned their best chance of the game in the nascent stages of the second period, though, letting Sanfrecce, who still looked dangerous on the break, off the hook.
Again, the Japanese team were eventually able to re-establish a foothold in the contest. Juan Arango of ESPN was very impressed by the manner in which they were performing:
Juan G. Arango @JuanG_Arango
#SanfrecceHiroshima impressive with skill and organization2015-12-16 11:39:18
As good as they were gradually, the Sanfrecce players were beginning to look a little jaded as they hared after the ball, with their counter-attacks becoming more and more ragged as a result. It allowed River to keep the pressure on for longer spells, and eventually, they capitalised through Alario.
The forward, who scored in River’s Copa Libertadores final triumph, added to his reputation as a player for the big occasion, reacting quickest after a free-kick was headed back across goal 18 minutes from time. It’s one that Hiroshima ‘keeper Takuto Hayashi will not want to see again, as he flapped at the initial cross into the box.
In fairness, as JSoccer Magazine stated on their social media account, it was an error at odds with a strong display from Hayashi:
JSoccer Magazine @JSoccerMagazine
Oh Hayashi! what a game he'd been having! but not decisive enough and ball squirms free! headed home. Now Sanfrecce MUST take a chance.2015-12-16 12:01:41
The goal meant the Japanese giants had to push forward, thus leaving space for their technically superior opponents to exploit. However, despite a frantic last few minutes, the South American champions were able to preserve their one-goal lead, much to the delight of their raucous travelling supporters.
Sunday’s showdown will be a massive challenge, should Barcelona indeed qualify. The Blaugrana have been tremendous throughout the calendar year, with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar all in brilliant goalscoring form coming into this competition, although the latter faces a fight to be fit.
In a role reversal from Wednesday's game, River will be the side tasked with soaking up pressure and springing should those two meet in Yokohama. But with the talismanic Alario in form and a healthy travelling support pushing them on, the Argentine giants will feel as though they have a fair chance of causing an upset.