Barcelona’s star forward trio was reduced to one, but Luis Suárez rose to the occasion to fire home a hat-trick and lead his side to a 3-0 victory over Guangzhou Evergrande in the semifinals of the FIFA Club World Cup in Yokohama on Thursday. Even without Lionel Messi and Neymar, Barcelona still proved a class apart from their Chinese opponents, to book a meeting with South American champions River Plate and a chance to win a fifth trophy of 2015 in the final on Sunday.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. Missing Neymar to a groin injury and with Messi a late withdrawal with kidney stones, Barcelona initially struggled to get past their well-drilled opponents. But Guangzhou, the winners of the Asian Champions League, were undone by Barcelona’s brilliant Uruguayan.
Six minutes before halftime, Gunagzhou goalkeeper Li Shuai spilled a long-rage drive from Ivan Rakitic, and the ever alert Suárez pounced to break the admirable early resistance of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side. Guangzhou were powerless to do anything five minutes into the second half as Barcelona effectively secured their place in Sunday’s final. After laying the ball off to Andres Iniesta, Suárez darted into the box, where he received a sumptuous return pass, chesting it down and volleying it past Li all in one brilliant movement. Adding a swagger to the scroreline, after Hunag Bowen was adjudged to have brought down Munir El Haddadi in the box, Suárez slammed home a penalty to secure his hands on the match ball.
There was no way back for an ultimately blunt Guangzhou side that had beaten Mexicans Club America to reach the last four. It what can often be a tricky first fixture in the competition for the European and South American champions, battling jetlag and the risk of already having one eye on the final, both have navigated the path in a professional manner.
In three days’ time, back at the same International stadium in Yokohama, Barcelona will now look to add to their haul of La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League and European Super Cup titles in what has been a year to remember. And coach Luis Enrique will hope to have both Messi and Neymar available for the challenge.
Without two of the men that have propelled them to so much success this year, Barcelona encountered some frustration early on. Guangzhou, boosted by an influx of Brazilian talent, including former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho, were happy to sit behind the ball and plug any gaps Barcelona attempted to find. Certainly Guangzhou showed more steel that the last side Scolari took charge of in the semifinals of a FIFA competition, when his Brazil team imploded against Germany in last year’s World Cup.
Barcelona’s best sight of goal in the first 30 minutes was when Munir was played through by Iniesta but Li came quickly off his line to deny him. Guangzhou’s goalkeeper wasn’t nearly so impressive soon after. Rakitic’s effort was well-struck, but still should have been held by Li, or, at the very least, pushed to greater safety than into the path of Suárez.
By that point, Guangzhou had already lost Zou Zheng to a horrific-looking ankle injury after appearing to get his foot stuck in the turf. And with Brazilian Elkeson an isolated figure up front, Scolari’s side, which left former Brazil international Robinho on the bench throughout, seldom looked like getting back into the contest.
Their one chance to do so came when Paulinho, the man whose goal secured victory in the quarterfinals, headed a corner wide just before halftime. Soon after the restart the game was put beyond them as Barcelona turned on the style to double their lead. And midway through the second half, the win was put beyond any doubt. Although the challenge from Huang looked somewhat innocuous, the referee pointed to the spot and Suárez did the rest.
Having lost on their first two appearances in the final of the Club World Cup and its predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup, Barcelona now have a chance to sit on the top of the world for a third time in seven years.