YOKOHAMA -- The soccer world was almost treated to a "Midwinter Night's Dream" on Dec. 18, as Japan's Kashima Antlers came close to beating Spain's Real Madrid in the FIFA Club World Cup final.
The Antlers battled hard against European champions Real Madrid, and managed to take the game to extra time -- partly as a result of some tenacious defending.
The European champions attacked strongly from the start. Christiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema continued to apply pressure on the Antlers' defense, and Real Madrid quickly took the lead in the ninth minute -- through a Benzema goal.
However, the Antlers responded well and managed to stem the flow of Real Madrid's attacking play with some excellent defending. In particular, the Kashima Antlers center backs, Gen Shoji and Naomichi Ueda, were the real deal in terms of their defensive performance -- and managed to subdue the threat of Ronaldo during normal time. Shoji and Ueda both remained composed and did not fly into tackles needlessly.
The J-League champion Antlers kept on fighting and made the game difficult for Real Madrid. However, in the end, it was all too much. The European champions went on to win the game 4-2 after extra time, with Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo scoring a hat trick.
After the game, Antlers manager Masatada Ishii reflected, "There was a gap between the two teams in terms of individual speed and decisiveness." It was this difference that ultimately helped Real Madrid over the finish line and to Club World Cup glory.
With Real Madrid as the opponents, Antlers players were able to experience a level of tension that is not normally seen in other matches, and they certainly rose to the occasion. The Antlers need to make the most of this valuable experience in the future.