Pachuca's efforts to become the first CONCACAF team to make the final of the FIFA Club World Cup went to extra time but ultimately fell short Tuesday with a 1-0 loss to Copa Libertadores champion Gremio.
After an uninspiring Liga MX Apertura, Pachuca manager Diego Alonso put out a game plan that he thought would allow his team to get into a likely matchup against Real Madrid. Typically a wide-open team, Alonso returned to some of the tactics he'd tried out during the CONCACAF Champions League and played a more closed game. While that kept Gremio from registering too many dangerous chances on Oscar "Conejo" Perez's goal, it also meant few opportunities for Pachuca.
The veneer fell early in extra time as 21-year-old forward Everton danced past Joaquin "Shaggy" Martinez, then gleefully took the chance that center back Omar Gonzalez allowed him to shoot with his right foot and sent a rocket past the veteran goalkeeper for the winning goal.
Playing for extra time and penalties was a risky tactic adopted by Alonso. Gremio were playing their first match of the competition, while Pachuca already had played 120 minutes in a 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Wydad Casablanca. While the Uruguayan had rested some of his regulars, including Gonzalez, others like Keisuke Honda and Victor Guzman had a fair number of minutes already played in the UAE.
Tuzos failing to make the final is no surprise after a disappointing regular season that saw them finish 12th in the league table. It is also another piece of compelling evidence that CONCACAF puts its teams at a disadvantage in this tournament.
Pachuca's first-half attacking strategy relied on a winger providing an exit valve for defensive pressure and that winger coming across to the center either to set up another runner or find his own shot. That would've looked a lot different — and been much more effective — were that player current PSV standout Hirving Lozano rather than Keisuke Honda. Instead, a team who has lost key personnel goes up against a Copa Libertadores champion that was at its best just two weeks ago. Colombia international Stefan Medina, who was part of Monterrey's unsuccessful Liga MX title charge and featured at Pachuca during their CONCACAF Champions League run, would've provided a better choice at fullback than Joaquin "Shaggy" Martinez.
Pachuca was the first confederation champion to qualify. Only Oceania and UEFA have similarly long waits. The former is largely irrelevant at this level, while the former has the financial resources to keep its best players and is at such a high level that even player departures rarely factor. The European champion has won all but one of the last ten tournaments, and the realities of the modern game are that it's unlikely to change.
However, the quality of CONCACAF is rising. You can imagine the Pachuca team with its top scorer, Lozano, getting past the Gremio side that labored to beat the current edition of Pachuca on Tuesday. Instead, the structure continues to allow for situations like this one. The region's champion played a fine game and ultimately fell short, but memories of them being the best team in the zone are in the rear-view mirror. Unless something changes, which is unlikely with CONCACAF still set to play in a new format in 2018 that starts in February and ends in April, the region's representatives will struggle against in-form sides from other parts of the world.