Hernan Crespo hails 'incredible' Al Ain performance against Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr

UAE club defend a 1-0 lead in return leg of Asian Champions League quarter-final next Monday

Al Nassr coach Luis Castro (L) with Al Ain coach Hernan Crespo before the 1st leg of the AFC Champions League quarter-final between Al Ain and Al Nassr. Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Powered by automated translation

Hernan Crespo hailed his Al Ain side’s “incredible” performance in the Asian Champions League quarter-final first-leg win against Al Nassr, but warned the tie is far from over.

The UAE club defeated their star-studded Saudi Arabian counterparts 1-0 at a packed Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Monday night, with Sofiane Rahimi’s goal in first-half stoppage time proving decisive.

Asian champions in 2003, Al Ain were well worth the memorable victory, provided a display full of grit and fine play, too. The hosts had two goals disallowed for offside, although to secure the win, they did need goalkeeper Khalid Essa to make two superb saves to deny Nassr captain Cristiano Ronaldo. The Riyadh side also had Aymeric Laporte sent off in injury time for an elbow on Al Ain full-back Bandar Al Ahbabi.

Al Ain travel to the Saudi capital at the weekend for Monday’s return leg at what is sure to be a sold-out Al Awwal Park.

“It was a very tough match and an incredible performance,” Crespo said afterwards. “The players showed a great night against a good opponent with a lot of stars. And we deserved to win. We played very well, played really good football.

“But it’s not finished. It’s only the first half and then we need to finish this history there. It will not be easy.”

Missing star striker Kodjo Laba through injury, Al Ain were excellent right the way through the side, with Rahimi leading the line brilliantly in the Togo forward's absence. South Americans Kaku and Matias Palacios provided more than able support in attack, while South Korean Park Yong-woo got the better of Portugal international Otavio in midfield.

Al Ain’s defence, led expertly by Khaled Al Hashimi, confined Ronaldo to few chances, with the five-time Ballon d'Or winner cutting a frustrated figure throughout. Sadio Mane, meanwhile, struggled to carve out any chances for himself.

The defeat snapped Nassr's longest unbeaten run in the Champions League, at eight matches.

“Really, the result is good because every time you win is important, and more in these kinds of matches,” said Crespo, who was appointed Al Ain manager in November. “But I don’t know if this is enough [yet], because we need to go there and live another battle. We know very well they have great players to make the difference, and we need to pay attention.

“At the same time our strength is the group. Tonight, for another time, we showed how important it is to be ready to play together in this kind of situation. The crucial point is to understand the way you want to play, to defend our identity with great effort to help the talent.

“Tonight was a perfect situation against a great team, against great players. But it’s not finished. We are very happy, but it’s not finished.”

Crespo, whose side have a League Cup semi-final at home to Ittihad Kalba on Thursday – Al Ain are 2-0 up from the first leg – added: “Everybody is happy, the fans are happy, I think the board are happy. But we need to go step-by-step, stay calm, try to recover energy, because in three days we have another semi-final and then the second leg of the Champions League.

“We have great goals to reach. Then we need to recover energy, be ready. It was a great night? Yes, of course. We are full of happiness? Yes, of course. We can be proud of that, but we need to stay calm. Again, it is not finished."

Meanwhile, Nassr manager Luis Castro said: “We are only halfway through, and while going to the next round is going to be difficult, we still have 90 minutes at home.”

Updated: March 05, 2024, 1:39 PM