Few anticipated a spectacular World Club Cup final – Corinthians triumphed in the Copa Libertadores after a steady stream of narrow victories dependent on clean sheets, while Rafael Benítez has focused on defensive structure in his opening weeks at Chelsea. In a match between two reactive coaches, there was little invention or creativity from attackers.
This unquestionably suited Corinthians. Chelsea, for all Benítez's caution, were fielding three outright attacking midfielders – Victor Moses, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard – behind Fernando Torres, in combination with a midfield partnership of Ramires and Frank Lampard, significantly more forward-thinking than their semi-final duo of Mikel John Obi and David Luiz. It was remarkable that these six produced so little, and the Corinthians coach Tite succeeded in his primary intention: stopping the opposition. Even the lone striker José Paolo Guerrero was given a specific defensive task, positioning himself next to David Luiz and preventing the Brazilian storming forward or starting attacks from deep. Corinthians were happy to allow Gary Cahill to have the ball and the defender's sluggishness in possession contributed to Chelsea's malaise.
Tite's decision to omit Douglas, a classic No10, was evidence of a particularly negative approach. As it turned out, the playmaker would have thrived in the space behind Ramires and Lampard, but Tite's strategy was intelligent; his side pressed near the halfway line, preventing easy passes being played into Chelsea's creative trio, and when Corinthians were unable to counter-attack, they pointedly slowed the game. Corinthians might lack the stereotypical Brazilian love of flair and trickery but they desired a classically South American slow tempo. In the semi-final, Chelsea had destroyed a Monterrey side unable to cope with the pace of a Premier League side but failed to reproduce that urgency against a more intelligent team, and lacked an intelligent deep-lying playmaker, a Xavi Hernández or an Andrea Pirlo, the type who could dictate the rhythm and flow of the game.
Defensively, Corinthians were particularly keen to guard against Chelsea's clever left-sided combinations so the right-sided midfielder Jorge Henrique played a very functional role, making sure the right-back Alessandro was not overloaded when Ashley Cole stormed forward to support Hazard.
On the left, Tite is happy to be more fluid. Danilo was nominally an attacking midfielder but shuttled back from a central position to defend the left flank. This unusual arrangement allowed Emerson to remain higher up as a counter-attacking outlet on the left wing, without his lack of defensive work becoming a problem. Although the format appeared peculiar, it is a regular feature of Tite's side and depends on good understanding between players.
Nevertheless, the apparent lack of protection the left-back Fábio Santos receives was the reason Benítez started Victor Moses on the right. "They had problems in wide areas and we wanted to use his pace," he said. That was understandable – a natural winger (rather than Mata or Oscar floating inside) was likely to cause Santos problems but Moses often made narrow runs towards goal, undermining the purpose of his involvement. His brightest moment actually came from the other flank, cutting on to his right foot and forcing a good save from Cássio.
Still, it is difficult to comprehend why Benítez persisted with his starting XI when Corinthians were increasingly dominating. He turned to the bench only at 1-0 down, introducing Oscar, who was the most obvious candidate to quicken the tempo and cause Corinthians difficulties. The second substitute, César Azpilicueta, is a more attack-minded right-back than Branislav Ivanovic, but this relatively unadventurous attacking shift could have occurred before 83 minutes. Marko Marin only arrived four minutes before half-time.
Torres missed a good late chance, and Corinthians rarely threatened to double their lead but this was another example of Chelsea's lack of tactical sophistication. Corinthians triumphed because of excellent organisation and clever strategy, and despite possessing inferior individuals. Their lack of superstars is why Europe's elite have not pillaged their side since their Libertadores victory – Tite's world champions are unquestionably greater than the sum of their parts, which is not something that you can say of the Premier League's leading clubs.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Free-ers