YOKOHAMA – Barcelona defender Jordi Alba hailed teammate Luis Suarez as “the most complete No. 9 in the world” after the Uruguayan’s three-goal demolition of Guangzhou Evergrande on Thursday night put the Spanish giants into the Club World Cup final.
Suarez brushed off the absence of star teammates Lionel Messi and Neymar to score all three goals in Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Asian champions Guangzhou, earning his side a showdown with Argentine side River Plate in Sunday’s final.
Barcelona left-back Alba was not surprised at his teammate’s virtuoso performance in front of 63,820 at Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium, however, and believes no other striker in the world can match the mercurial Uruguayan’s predatory instincts.
“Suarez is synonymous with goals,” said Spain international Alba. “He does it so well. He’s the best No. 9 in the world, the purest, most complete striker. He has been playing at a very high level for many years but he has improved since he joined us. His way of playing really suits Barcelona’s style.
“It’s a shame that Neymar and Messi couldn’t play tonight but I hope they will be available for the final. River Plate are a good team with fantastic supporters, but we are used to playing under pressure and we will try to win the game.”
Brazilian forward Neymar was expected to miss the semifinal having suffered a groin injury in training last week. But Argentine maestro Messi was a late scratch having woken up on Thursday morning with renal colic, a type of abdominal pain commonly caused by kidney stones.
“I didn’t feel that there was a weight of responsibility on me to carry the team tonight,” said Suarez. “The responsibility was shared by the whole team.
“River Plate defend very high up the pitch, so hopefully we will be able to exploit the space behind them. I got to keep the match ball for scoring a hat trick tonight, but I won’t give it to my son. I’ll put it in the Barcelona club museum.”
Barcelona will be favored to win its third Club World Cup in seven years against River, but the Argentine club will lack nothing in terms of support.
An estimated 15,000 River fans have made the journey from Buenos Aires to Japan — noisily taking over Osaka’s Dotonbori Canal ahead of Wednesday’s 1-0 semifinal win over J. League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima — but Barcelona manager Luis Enrique refuses to be intimidated.
“We don’t know who is going to lift the cup until the end of the 90 minutes,” said Luis Enrique. “Both teams have a chance, but we are now in the final and we want to try our best. There are a lot of River fans but there are also a lot of Barcelona fans, and Japanese fans like Barcelona and really get behind us.
“I hope Suarez continues to play like this. He’s very talented. He knows how to deal with even the most difficult situations. He’s spectacular. He’s the first line of defense, and that kind of pressing is very important. He’s an essential part of the team.”
Guangzhou manager Luiz Felipe Scolari admitted that his ears pricked up when he learned that Messi would join Neymar on the sidelines, but the Brazilian’s optimism was soon replaced by pragmatism when he surveyed Barcelona’s options.
“Messi is one of the best players in the world, so when I found out he was not playing I had some expectations,” said 2002 World Cup-winner Scolari, who lost defender Zou Zheng to a horrific leg break in the first half. “But for Barcelona it’s different. They have 24 or 25 very strong players in reserve.
“I think it was clear to everybody that they were superior to us, but we had a different objective. For us, the next goal is to finish third, and we need to learn from today’s match.”
Guangzhou will now face Sanfrecce in the third-place playoff prior to Sunday’s final, and midfielder Paulinho is keen to refocus quickly.
“Of course it’s difficult — we knew that before the game,” said Brazil international Paulinho, who joined Guangzhou from English side Tottenham Hotspur in the summer. “But it doesn’t matter, we have to keep going for the next game.
“Now it’s a good final — Barca against River Plate. But I don’t have to think about the final, just about my game.”
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