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Six of the best for Barcelona

Lionel Messi capped a remarkable year for himself and Barcelona by puffing out his chest to push the ball into the net for the winning goal in their 2-1 extra-time victory over Estudiantes in the Club World Cup Final in the United Arab Emirates.

Barcelona added the trophy – one which they missed out on in 2006, having also lost the Intercontinental Cup Final in 1992 – to the five others they won in 2009: La Liga, the Spanish Cup, the Champions League, the Spanish Super Cup and the European Super Cup.

Pedro, who scored the 89th-minute equaliser to break the hearts of the Libertadores Cup holders’ 5,000 travelling fans, found the net in all six competitions and in their five finals.

Messi and Pedro were just two of the players who bear testimony to the tremendous success of Barca’s youth scheme, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has confirmed that when the Catalan club make a signing they choose well.

Barcelona started favourites to win the tournament and it was fitting, in a showcase involving the champions of each continent, that their fine attacking brand of football should come out on top. However, they had to be at their very best to thwart Estudiantes’ pretentious to a second world crown, following their victory in 1968.

Juan Sebastian Veron, at the hub of the Argentinian side’s midfield, worked his socks off and was voted second-best player of the tournament (behind compatriot Messi) but the South American champions were unable to repeat the class performance that won the Libertadores in July.

Having taken the lead with Mauro Boselli’s fine headed goal in the first half, Estudiantes were pushed back into their own half in the second as Barcelona attacked them from all angles before Pedro finally lobbed goalkeeper Damian Albil from central defender Gerard Pique’s headed pass.

The weight of Barcelona’s talents became too much for a tiring Estudiantes team in extra time and Messi darted between two defenders to chest home Dani Alves’ right-wing cross in the second period of extra time.

Europe and South America dominated the event once again, with the Champions League winners taking the title for the third year in a row, after Milan in 2007 and Manchester United in 2008.

Asian champions Pohang Steelers of South Korea, with their Brazilian influence, took third place on penalties after a 1-1 draw, though the spot should have gone to Mexico’s Atlante, the CONCACAF’s representatives, who had the lion’s share of chances in their play-off, with Argentinian midfielder Gabriel Pereyra hitting the woodwork three times.

Coaches Jose Cruz of Atlante and Sergio Farias of the Steelers agreed that the tournament was a good experience for their teams, but Farias was upset by the refereeing of Pohang’s 2-1 semi-final defeat against Estudiantes when they had three players sent off. In the post-match news conference the Brazilian even implied that the organisers wanted to maintain the status quo in the Final.

However, the problem was more to do with Italian referee Roberto Rosetti’s use of his yellow card from the off – a mistake avoided by the referees in the final day’s two matches when they issued firm warnings first.

The Steelers were rough and somewhat naive in their tackling, but at least two of their bookings in the second half did not merit sendings off – except that the fouls were committed by players who already had one yellow to their names.

Brazilian striker Denilson, back in the country where he spent six years of his widely travelled career, scored all four of Pohang’s goals to finish the tournament as top scorer. Four players scored twice: Messi, Pedro, Estudiantes midfielder Leandro Benitez and Auckland City’s Jason Hayne.

The amateurs from Auckland finished a surprise fifth and will have taken enormous benefit for themselves and the Oceania confederation with victories over UAE champions Al Ahli and Africa’s TP Mazembe of DR Congo.

Mazembe paraded some fine attacking talent, particularly their captain Mabi Mputu, but they lacked organisation in defence, with their rudimentary efforts to play an offside trap letting them down twice in their 3-2 fifth-place play-off defeat by the New Zealanders.

FIFA congratulated themselves on a switch from Japan to the Emirates which worked in terms of organisation and logistics but suffered the unexpected glitch of Al Ahli’s defeat in the quarter-final play-off – a result that affected attendances until Barcelona entered the fray.

Sheikh Mohammed Khalfan al Rumaithi, president of the UAE FA, had harsh words for Al Ahli at the FIFA news conference, berating them for their poor preparation and calling on the team that wins the league this year to do better.

FIFA will not budge for the time being on the format of the tournament. They are happy with it while it has little effect on the participating teams’ domestic calendar. In fact, Barcelona were the most affected as their semi-final was their third match in eight days in three different competitions, following a Champions League match a week earlier and the Catalan capital’s derby in between.

One day, no doubt, a team from one of the other confederations will get a result and contest the Final. They are not too far off, but the world is still waiting for an African or
Asian nation to lift the World Cup and may continue to wait after this summer’s jamboree in South Africa, where Brazil are more likely winners than, say, Ivory Coast, Cameroon or Nigeria.

Estudiantes’ fans were hugely impressive, creating a real atmosphere at their two games. Most had travelled all the way from La Plata: one having sold his car to foot the bill, while two others had been at Old Trafford in 1968, where they watched Veron’s father, Juan Ramon, head the team in front in a 1-1 draw that ended with Estudiantes clinching the world title 2-1 on aggregate

However, the popularity of the Club World Cup depends hugely on local interest and the Japanese guaranteed good support during the four years they staged the tournament. In Abu Dhabi, it was the big names that drew the crowds and the locals wanted to see Messi more than they did Barcelona.

Perhaps his two-goal performance will go a long way towards ensuring the popularity of the tournament in the UAE next year.

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