When Kashima gave Real an almighty scare: Asia's best FIFA Club World Cup displays

Gaku Shibasaki and the Kashima Antlers pushed Real Madrid in the 2016 Finals. Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

The 2020 FIFA Club World Cup gets underway in Qatar on Thursday with two sides -- continental champions Ulsan Hyundai and Al Duhail from the host nation -- flying the Asian flag in the 17th edition of the tournament.

The Club World Cup was originally scheduled for December 2020, but was postponed after the champions of Africa, Asia and South America were not decided in time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Qatar Stars League champions Al Duhail, awarded a bye in the first round after the withdrawal of New Zealand's Auckland City, face Egyptian giants Al Ahly in the opener, Ulsan will meet CONCACAF champions Tigres UANL of Mexico for a place in the semi-finals.

The world championship has had a distinct Asian feel to it with 13 of its 16 editions so far held in in the continent. Asian clubs have certainly made their impact felt in the tournament -- none more so than Japan's Kashima Antlers when they gave European giants Real Madrid a run for their money in the 2016 final.

Here, we look back at some of Asia's best displays in the competition.

Urawa take Asia to first podium finish in 2007

For all of Kashima's indomitable endeavour, they were not the first Asian side to achieve a podium finish in the competition.

Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad had gone close in 2005, but it wasn't until two years later that Asia had its first top-three finish in the competition when 2007 ACL winners Urawa Red Diamonds defeated Tunisia's Etoile du Sahel in a penalty shootout to clinch the bronze medal.

The Reds had gotten the better of Iran's Sepahan in the first round, just like they did in the AFC Champions League final a month before, to book a semifinal clash against AC Milan. Urawa did put up a stubborn show against Carlo Ancelotti's European champions, but were undone by a solitary goal from Clarence Seedorf in the 68th minute.

However, the Japanese side overcame Etoile in a third-place play-off to finish third in the tournament -- a feat that was repeated by compatriots Gamba Osaka and South Korea's Pohang Steelers in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Al Sadd make West Asia history in 2011

It wasn't until 2011, in the tournament's 8th iteration, that a West Asian side secured a medal. Qatar's Al Sadd made a winning debut in the competition by overcoming Esperance 2-1 at the Toyota Stadium in Japan to reach the semifinals.

The 2011 AFC Champions League winners fell to European champions Barcelona 4-0 in the last-four, but Jorge Fossati's side had another stab at a medal as they took on hosts Kashiwa Reysol in an all-Asian matchup for bronze.

The then-Japanese champions and Qatari giants battled it out at the International Stadium Yokohama, and could not be separated in regulation time, which led to the lottery of the penalty shootout. Mamadou Niang, Abdul Kader Keita, Ibrahim Majid, Hassan Al-Haydos and Nadir Belhadj converted their spot-kicks to hand Al Sadd third place, as Ryohei Hayashi crucially missed the target for Kashiwa.

Kashima defy odds to scare Los Blancos in 2016

Qualifying as champions of Japan, Kashima defeated Auckland 2-1 in the first round and then booked a place in the last four with a 2-0 defeat of South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns. Masatada Ishii's men then overcame Colombia's Atletico Nacional 3-0 in Osaka to book a dream final against the La Liga giants.

The final against Zinedine Zidane's Real on Dec. 18, 2016 in Yokohama turned out to be far from the one-sided affair many expected, but one that ultimately needed the intervention of a once-in-a-generation talent that is Cristiano Ronaldo to decide the contest in Los Blancos' favour.

Karim Benzema had put the Spanish side ahead early, but Gaku Shibasaki levelled for the J1 League outfit before the interval.

The Japanese midfielder stunned Real again seven minutes after the restart when his low drive squeezed past Keylor Navas as Kashima, the first Asian side to reach the Club World Cup final, threatened to make the night even more monumental. But, Ronaldo, who had won his fourth Ballon d'Or only a week before, equalised to force extra time.

The likes of Fabricio, Yasushi Endo and Yuma Suzuki all went close for Kashima, but it was Real's Portuguese ace who was the difference on the night completing his hat-trick in extra time to clinch the title. The defeat, however, did not undermine Kashima's fairytale run as Japan's most decorated side flexed its muscles amongst the biggest stars of world football.

Asia reaches the showpiece again in 2018 courtesy of Al Ain

Less than two years on after Kashima's run into the final, another Asian side -- this time United Arab Emirates' Al Ain -- made it to the title showdown at the 2018 Club World Cup on home soil.

The 2003 ACL winners had a tough start to the tournament, only beating Team Wellington on penalties in the first round after going three goals down. Tunisia's Esperance Sportive de Tunis were their next opponents and were comfortably dispatched by the Emiratis in a 3-0 win.

What followed was an epic clash against Argentina's River Plate that featured the likes of Enzo Perez and Pity Martinez as Al Ain came from behind to force a penalty shootout once more. And yet again, it was the heroics of their goalkeeper Khalid Eisa, who saved River's fifth and final penalty from Perez to help them progress to the final.

Real Madrid, then led by Santiago Solari, once again stood between an Asian side and glory in the title showdown, after the Spaniards overcame Kashima in the other last four tie. Though Real coasted to a 4-1 win for their third successive Club World Cup title, Al Ain ended their campaign with heads held high.