A trio of magnificent goals have taken Santos through to the FIFA Club World Cup final following a thrilling 3-1 win over Kashiwa Reysol at the Toyota Stadium.
The J.League champions fought valiantly throughout, but proved powerless to resist three truly unforgettable strikes from Neymar, Borges and Danilo. Santos now march on to face the winner of tomorrow’s second semi-final between Barcelona and Al-Sadd and, on this evening’s form, neither of those Yokohama rivals will relish facing Muricy Ramalho’s men.
Faced with a team of such awesome attacking skill, Kashiwa would doubtless have been hoping to make a solid start and settle any pre-match nerves. As it was, they only avoided going behind inside five minutes thanks to an amazing let-off. Naoya Kondo was certainly the most relieved man inside the Toyota Stadium after he miscued a clearance directly in front of his own goal, sending the ball straight to Neymar. Eight yards out and clearly taken aback by the gift, the Santos prodigy duly knocked the ball goalwards only to see it rebound off the post and into the grateful arms of goalkeeper Takanori Sugeno.
Neymar might have been out of luck on this occasion, but he remained the game’s most lively presence, treating the fans to an array of tricks that drew gasps from the admiring locals. Nothing, however, could have prepared the crowd for the moment of pure magic that yielded the game’s opening goal on 19 minutes. Drifting into space 25 yards from goal, Neymar picked up a pass from Ganso and shaped to shoot with his right foot, only to instead jink inside on his left. Then, having left his marker for dead with this change of direction, in one lithe movement he curled a sumptuous shot into the top left-hand corner, leaving keeper Takanori Sugeno rooted to the spot.
Five minutes later, Santos doubled their lead, and goal number two wasn’t far off the standard set by Neymar’s sublime opener. This time, the inspiration was provided by Borges, who took the ball with his back to goal 20 yards out, spun away from marker Tatsuya Masushima and smashed an unstoppable right-foot drive into the top right-hand corner. The J.League champions could only watch helplessly and marvel at such flashes of inspiration, and there was audible concern in the crowd when, soon after, Neymar landed awkwardly and was stretchered from the field.
Fortunately, the Brazil international was quickly back on his feet, although the magic dried up a little towards the end of a first half that became increasingly scrappy. Santos continued to look the likelier of the two sides to score in the early exchanges of the second period though, with Danilo denied by a last-gasp challenge and the erstwhile subdued Ganso stinging Sugeno’s palms from 25 yards.
However, when the game’s third goal did arrive nine minutes after the restart, it was at the other end. Hiroki Sakai was the player who, out of the blue, managed to drag his team back into contention, timing his jump to perfection to bullet home an inviting outswinging cross from Jorge Wagner. Behind the goal, meanwhile, Kashiwa’s noisy band of yellow-clad supporters once again dared to dream.
Their joy was to be short-lived, however, because just nine minutes had elapsed when yet another spectacular goal re-established Santos’s two-goal cushion. Danilo was at the heart of it all, winning a free-kick 30 yards from goal which he himself took, curling the ball perfectly around the wall and just inside the post, with Sugeno again statuesque. Kashiwa, to their credit, refused to give up, and Masakatsu Saka twice came within inches of reducing arrears, first when he crashed an angled shot against the base of the left-hand post and later when he somehow ballooned over from four yards after sliding in to meet a Leandro Domingues cross.
But this is not a game that will be remembered for its misses. Instead, it will go down in history as the match in which Neymar and Santos announced their arrival at the FIFA Club World Cup in the most spectacular style imaginable.