Gareth Bale hit an 11-minute hat-trick on Wednesday as Real Madrid strolled into the Club World Cup final by beating Kashima Antlers 3-1 in Abu Dhabi.
Bale scored in the 44th, 53rd and 55th minutes at the Zayed Sports City Stadium to put Madrid within touching distance of a record fourth success in this competition, and their third triumph in a row.
Real are currently tied with their La Liga rivals Barcelona, having each won it three times before, but it would be a major surprise if the European champions were not hoisting the trophy again on Saturday, when they face hosts Al Ain in the final.
Bale had missed the 1-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano last weekend with an ankle problem but he was in irresistible form, albeit against limited opposition.
The Welshman joins Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the only player to score in three separate Club World Cup tournaments while his treble, coming either side of half-time, is the fastest in the history of the competition.
“Bale ate everything today, the floodlights, the stands, the nets,” coach Santiago Solari said. “He has shown what a player he is and what he can do.”
So let him rest and eat the nets again on Saturday.”
Kashima Antlers, from Japan’s J1 League, qualified after winning the Asian Champions League last month but, despite a lively start and a late consolation from Shoma Doi, they were clearly second best.
Bale now has 10 goals in 21 games for Real Madrid this season while victory will also come as a relief to Solari.
A handful of underwhelming performances had been badly timed given the sacking of Jose Mourinho by Manchester United, with speculation linking the Portuguese with a return to the club never far away.
“We see the final as a reward for this team that has been together a long time and given great joy to Madrid fans,” Solari said.
Madrid were still sleeping during the opening 10 minutes and Antlers should have led, as Serginho’s shot was tipped wide by Thibaut Courtois before Gen. Shoji failed to connect with a free header three yards out.