Asian champions Al-Sadd today booked a FIFA Club World Cup semi-final date with Barcelona thanks to a 2-1 victory over Esperance at the Toyota Stadium.
The victory was a testament to the importance of taking one’s chances, with the Qataris advancing despite spending the vast majority of this match firmly on the back foot. Esperance were dominant from the outset, and Al-Sadd keeper Mohamed Saqr was twice called upon to deny the Tunisians’ Cameroonian striker, Yannick Ndjeng, inside the opening eight minutes.
The African champions also had the game’s outstanding player in Youssef Msakni, who lit up the match on 19 minutes with a superb piece of skill on the left flank. Flicking the ball cheekily around his statuesque marker, the talented youngster spun away before bursting past another defender and into the Al-Sadd box. And though his attempted pass was cut out, the ball again fell to Ndjeng, who could only look on in agony as his low left-foot shot rebounded off the inside of the right-hand post and back into Saqr’s arms.
Eight minutes later, another scintillating solo run from Msakni sliced through the Qataris’ defence, but the ball again ended up in Maqr’s grasp, with the Al-Sadd keeper proving equal to the 21-year-old’s right-foot shot. At this stage, it seemed only a matter of time before Esperance’s dominance was rewarded with a goal but, as so often happens, missed opportunities were punished by a classic sucker-punch.
It arrived on 34 minutes when Al-Sadd, having struggled to break out of their own half, took a stunning lead. The goal was hardly a thing of beauty, but when Kader Keita’s powerful right-foot shot squirmed through the gloves of Moez Ben Cherifia and looped into the air, Khalfan Al Khalfan took full advantage, heading into the net from just under a yard.
Esperance’s noisy band of travelling supporters were stunned into temporary silence, but they nearly had a goal of their own to cheer just six minutes later when Ndjeng volleyed over from close range after Maqr had spilled a cross under pressure from Ousama Darragi. There was more heartache for the Blood and Gold at the start of the second half though, when Al-Sadd doubled their advantage inside four minutes. Three defenders played central roles in the goal’s execution, with Lee Jung-Soo heading Nadir Belhadj’s free-kick back across goal for Abdulla Koni to slot home from five yards.
Already in trouble, Esperance were now in desperate need of a goal and, with an hour played, they found one. Again, it was a free-kick that did the damage, with Darragi’s floated left-foot cross-cum-shot eluding everyone en route to the far corner of the net. The Tunisians had the ball in the net once again with 11 minutes remaining, but Ndjeng – having bundled the ball home from close range – had his celebrations cut short by the assistant referee’s flag. Mejdi Traoui then missed a golden opportunity, side-footing over from an unmarked position 15 yards from goal, while substitute Khaled Ayari – like Ndjeng before him – had an effort ruled out for offside.
Esperance continued to press for a winner as the clock ticked down, but their attempts were in vain and, while they now face a fifth-place play-off, Al-Sadd can look forward to a semi-final against the all-star European champions.