A Luis Suarez hat-trick gave Barcelona a comfortable 3-0 win over Guangzhou Evergrande in the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup. The Asian champions were by no means embarrassed, but they were soundly beaten on an occasion which was overshadowed by Zou Zheng breaking his leg in the first half following an awkward fall.
Suarez’s first strike was in the 39th minute when he followed up Rakitic’s saved long range effort and his second came when he chested down a fine Andres Iniesta pass before firing in from close range. The awarding of a very soft penalty for a foul by Huang Bowen on Munir El Haddadi gave the Uruguayan the chance for a third and he made no mistake from twelve yards out.
FIFA Club World Cup Semi-Final
Guangzhou Evergrande 0
Suarez 39′, 50′, 67′ (pen)
The Catalans controlled the game from start to finish but, despite enjoying 75% of the possession, they only managed six shots on target, which includes Rakitic’s saved shot that led to Suarez’s opener. Evergrande only accumulated three total shots all game but they did, on the whole, do a good job of keeping up with a Barcelona side missing Lionel Messi and Neymar on the bench.
However, while two-thirds of Barcelona’s famed MSN triptych were missing, the S was still enough to overcome Evergrande with a pretty strong supporting cast featuring the likes of Rakitic, Iniestia, Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves and Gerard Pique.
Indeed, it was Croatian international Rakitic and World Cup winner Iniesta who proved instrumental in Suarez’s first two strikes. The first came when Rakitic found enough space outside the area to fire in a powerful shot that was much to close to Evergrande goalkeeper Li Shuai. Fortunately for the Spanish club, Li, who was standing in for injured starter Zeng Cheng, could only parry the shot into the path of Suarez when he probably should have done better.
Normally, it would be customary to say Suarez reacted first to the rebound, but in this case he was the only one to react as Evergrande centre backs Feng Xiaoting and Kim Young-gwon simply stood on the edge of the penalty area admiring Rakitic’s effort. Suarez didn’t so much pounce on the opportunity as jog towards it with the freedom to slot home under absolutely no pressure.
While Suarez’s first goal may have been a gift, his second was certainly earned as he laid the ball off to Iniesta before sprinting into the area, chesting down his captain’s beautifully lofted return ball and firing into the net. Li Shuai’s positioning could have been better, and Feng Xiaoting was certainly guilty of failing to track Suarez’s run into the box, but it was still a fine goal that effectively ended the game as a contest.
In the ten minutes between Suarez’s first and second strikes, Evergrande had actually looked like they could sneak an equaliser and even enjoyed a spell of pressure in the five minutes before half-time when they had a flurry of set pieces. That period was triggered when Elkeson forced an outstanding low save from Claudio Bravo by getting a glancing back header on to Huang Bowen’s free kick.
That proved to be Evergrande’s only shot on target and, while they continued to chase the game in the early phases of the second half, Barcelona’s going 2-0 up knocked the wind out of them. From that point on, the result was never in doubt, although the third goal proved very harsh on the CSL champions.
It came when Huang Bowen was adjudged to have tripped Munir El Haddadi in the penalty area, but replays showed that contact between the two players was minimal and incidental. Suarez didn’t care, though, and he blasted the ball to Li Shuai’s right to guarantee himself the match ball.
Aside from Suarez’s exploits, Barcelona’s possession bore little fruit as two close range efforts from El Haddadi, both were well smothered by Li Shuai, were their only other shots on target. Otherwise, Luis Enrique’s men mostly had to resort to long shots that were off target.
That being said, Barcelona’s dominance of the ball meant that Evergrande mustered just three shots all game. Elkeson’s header late in the first half was the only one on target and none of them came after the half time break.
All in all, the result was roughly as many expected, but there was one moment around the half hour mark that nobody could have foreseen. Zou Zheng was shepherding a harmless looking long ball into the arms of Li Shuai while under pressure from Dani Alves. The Brazilian gave Zou an innocuous shove, but the left back fell awkwardly and it was immediately apparent something was wrong.
The 27-year-old’s left leg had gotten caught in the grass and he apparently broke it as he fell. The former Qingdao Jonoon player, who recently won his first international cap, was left with his leg in a terribly mangled state and one hopes the injury is not as serious as it looks.
Zou’s misfortune leaves a sour taste in what has otherwise been a relatively successful tournament for Evergrande. Of course, they got beaten 3-0 here and never looked like scoring but, aside from the occasional lapse, they defended well and have succumbed to a fate that has befallen some of Europe’s top sides in recent years.
This game tells us that Evergrande are some way short of Barcelona’s level, but anybody who didn’t know that before kick-off was delusional. The five-time Super League champions were well beaten, but proved they were adequately equipped to not be humiliated by the best club side in the world.
Following on from their spectacular quarter-final win over Club America last Sunday, Evergrande can feel satisfied of their performance so far in this tournament, and they have a chance to cap it off on Sunday afternoon when they take on Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the third-placed play-off. The 2015 J-League winners, who qualified for this tournament by virtue of being the champions of the host country, have already beaten Oceania’s Auckland City in the preliminary round and hammered African champions TP Mazembe 3-0 in the quarter-final. They were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Copa Libetadores winners and Argentinian mega-club River Plate in the semi-final and will be no pushovers.
Third place playoffs seldom capture the imagination, especially when they are against opponents far less glamorous than the ones played against in the semi-final. However, Evergrande do still have something to play for in trying to best their fourth placed finish at the 2013 edition of the tournament and they have a very good opportunity to achieve that goal this Sunday.