Gareth Bale scored with his first touch as Real Madrid narrowly beat Al Jazira 2-1 on Wednesday to reach another Club World Cup Final.
Madrid needed to stage a second-half comeback in Abu Dhabi after they failed to take any of their 17 attempts before the break, fell behind on the scoreboard and were controversially deprived of the opening goal by the video assistant referee (VAR).
Zinedine Zidane named a strong XI, which was only missing Sergio Ramos through injury, while Dani Carvajal and Toni Kroos joined the returning Bale on the substitutes’ bench.
Los Blancos were looking to become the first club ever to defend the Club World Cup, but standing in their way were an Al Jazira side who were coached by former Barcelona assistant Henk ten Cate and had won their last four games.
They could’ve already been 3-0 up by just the eighth minute, yet Ali Khaseif was in the form of his life between the hosts’ sticks.
Indeed, the goalkeeper pushed Cristiano Ronaldo’s off the line, before managing to scramble another attempt from the Portuguese on to the bar and parrying Modric’s daisy-cutter on to the post.
If that wasn’t enough, he made three more terrific saves, smothering two Ronaldo finishes from close range and flinging away Karim Benzema’s header.
Al Jazira, for their part, had chances, but a lack of composure saw Ali Ahmed Mabkhout apply too much power on his cutback to an unmarked teammate in Madrid’s box.
Moments after Mabkhout broke clear and struck the ball just wide, Ronaldo was deemed to have fouled a defender before Benzema headed in Isco’s cross.
VAR then took centre stage and left more questions than answers. Casemiro’s header took a deflection as it looped over Khaseif, but after two minutes of consultation, Benzema was adjudged to be offside in the goal’s build-up, despite appearing not to interfere with play.
Los Merengues were subsequently caught cold on the break, with their defence all at sea, as Romarinho checked inside and coolly side-footed past Keylor Navas to light up the Zayed Sports City Stadium.
It could’ve got worse before it got better for Madrid, when Mbark Boussoufa tapped in from a couple of yards out, but the cutback was played fractionally in front of the Chelsea youth product.
From there, a huge boost for Los Blancos saw their arch-nemesis, goalkeeper Khaseif, go off with an injury. His replacement conceded the first shot he faced as Modric’s through ball was blasted home by Ronaldo, who became the Club World Cup’s all-time top scorer with six goals.
Benzema, meanwhile, never looked like finding the back of Khaled Al Senani’s net. Despite firing a half-volley at goal from close range, his effort was blocked by the No 2, before he hit the woodwork twice in succession and was jeered off.
The side-netting then denied Romarinho from Al Jazira restoring their surprise lead, and Zidane quickly proceeded to make changes, bringing on Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio and Bale.
Incredibly, the Welshman scored the winning goal with his first touch and within the first minute of his cameo as he turned in a cross from near the penalty spot, helped in by Ronaldo’s backheel.
And as Al Jazira’s Coach went for a toilet break, he missed his goalkeeper pushing away Bale's spectacular scissor kick.
Madrid will now face Brazilian side Gremio in the Club World Cup Final on Saturday evening.
Al Jazira 1-2 Real Madrid
Romarinho 41 (AJ) Ronaldo 53, Bale 81 (RM)
Al Jazira: Khaseif (Al Senani 51); Al Attas, Fayez, Ali Ayed, Juma, Obaid; Yousef (Al Ghilani 72), Alhammadi (Al Otaiba 60), Boussoufa; Romarinho, Mabkhout
Real Madrid: Keylor; Achraf, Varane, Nacho, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kovacic (Vazquez 68); Isco (Asensio 68); Benzema (Bale 81), Ronaldo
Referee: Ricci (BRA)