Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Santos Beat Kashiwa to Reach Club World Cup Final

This was, in many ways, the calm before the storm. Santos today kicked off their Club World Cup campaign with a relatively straightforward win over Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol, setting up a possible final with European giants (and paragons of morality in the dusty pit of modern football... or something) Barcelona.

Santos 3-1 Kashiwa Reysol
Muricy Ramalho selected a full-strength side for the semi-final clash, hoping that his side would find some fluency before Sunday's test. With tenacious midfield limpet Adriano missing through injury (his absence could be critical against Barça), Muricy selected a flexible midfield: Henrique was the nominal holding player, with Arouca slightly advanced to his left. Elano operated to the right of that pair, contributing in attack but shuttling back to form a solid midfield three when required. In attack, Neymar roamed freely from his centre-left starting position, whilst Borges occasionally dropped deeper when Santos lost possession, helping Ganso pressurise the Kashiwa midfield.

Santos' fullbacks enjoyed differing levels of success during the match. Danilo - a talented youngster with boundless energy - got forward well, often surging into the space created by Elano's tendency to drift infield. He was the Peixe's standout performer and showed once more why Porto were so astute to snap him up in the summer. On the left, Durval was far less convincing. A centreback by trade, he was reluctant to join the attack, meaning that Santos enjoyed relatively little joy on that flank. The loss of Alex Sandro (also to Porto, but in this case not loaned back to the Brazilian side... it's interesting that the success of Santos' tactics could be determined to such an extent by the Portuguese club's transfer policy) has robbed Neymar of a partner in crime in the left, meaning his best work often came when he drifted centrally and to the right.

It was from such a position that Neymar opened the scoring. Ganso drifted into space in the middle of the park, before slipping a simple pass to his prodigious teammate. Neymar shaped to shoot with his right foot, before arrowing a delightful shot into the top corner with his left. It was a stunning strike, a worthy curtain-raiser for Santos' campaign. The Peixe doubled their lead soon after: Borges blasted home in trademark style after creating some space on the edge of the area.

Santos looked home and dry, but allowed Kashiwa back into the match after the interval. Former São Paulo schemer Jorge Wágner swung over a corner, from which Hiroki Sakai reduced the arrears. The Japanese side, who had failed to trouble Rafael despite enjoying some neat spells of possession prior to the interval, suddenly looked threatening: rightback Sakai troubled Durval throughout the second period, digging out numerous crosses that Edu Dracena and Bruno Rodrigo were forced to clear. From one such centre, Masakatsu Sawa wasted a golden opportunity to score his side's second, blazing over with the goal beckoning.

Yep, this is what Neymar would look like in a Real Madrid jersey.

By that stage, though, Santos had restored their two-goal lead. Danilo, who would usually be behind Elano and Ganso in the dead ball pecking order, curled a sumptuous free-kick around the Kashiwa wall, beating Takahori Sugeno all ends up. With substitutions disrupting the flow of the game, Muricy's side saw out the remaining minutes with some comfort.

Things, however, will not be so easy against Barça. (Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.) Daniel Alves will be licking his little pug lips at the prospect of facing Durval, whilst the likes of Ganso and Henrique will also need to up their game. Much of the responsibility, one feels, will again fall on the shoulders of one man. This tournament has long been billed as Messi vs. Neymar, and so it may prove. The problem for Santos is that when Messi doesn't perform, one of their myriad other superstars does. The Peixe must hope for an inspirational performance from their talisman on Sunday.

(Photo credit: Toru Hanai.)

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