Crespo 5 Ronaldo 0: Al Ain boss aims to extend career-long dominance on visit to Al Nassr

Argentine has won all five matches against the Portuguese star, both as player and manager, and will aim to keep the trend going in the Asian Champions League quarter-final second leg

Hernan Crespo, left, takes Al Ain to Riyadh to face Cristiano Ronaldo and Al Nassr in the Asian Champions League quarter-final second leg. photos: AFP
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Hernan Crespo 5, Cristiano Ronaldo 0. That’s the overall scoreline of fixtures, spread over more than 20 years of meetings between the head coach of Al Ain and football’s apparently ageless icon, a Ronaldo who, come Monday, should be a little concerned his 40th year is to pass by without a medal.

If 5-0 becomes 6-0, or there’s a draw over 90 minutes in Riyadh in the second leg of the Asian Champions League quarter-final Al Ain lead 1-0 at halfway, then the prospect of a CR7 club season finishing without a significant trophy looms large.

Ronaldo’s Al Nassr drift ever further back in the Saudi Pro League’s title race. Progress in the main continental competition now requires a comeback. And there cannot be too many seasons left for Ronaldo, the trophy recruit in the ambitious Saudi hiring of global talent, to add to his stack of career honours.

To Crespo, much credit for leaving the tie leaning narrowly in Al Ain’s favour ahead of the away leg. Tactically disciplined, they maximised limited goalscoring opportunity in Abu Dhabi and, with a grateful nod to some sharp goalkeeping from Khalid Eisa, kept a clean sheet against an Al Nassr who had scored at least once in all but one of their previous 33 fixtures. Ronaldo, on a run of 10 goals in 11 games when he arrived in Abu Dhabi, drew a blank.

Crespo, working his way around significant absences through injury to his Al Ain squad, is entitled to call himself CR7’s enduring nemesis, especially if he takes the long view of all their duels.

Crespo versus Ronaldo, as players, always finished with Ronaldo on the losing side. Back then they used to cross paths as a record-breaker and a record-breaker-in-waiting. There’s a nine-year age gap, but in their parallel journeys from acclaimed prodigies to expensive superstars, they share a rare distinction.

Crespo, a buccaneering centre forward, commanded the highest fee ever paid for a footballer when Lazio bought him from Parma in the first summer of this millennium for 110 billion Italian lire, close to €56 million. Nine years later, Real Madrid established another peak in the hyperinflationary ladder of modern transfer fees by making Ronaldo the first €100m player.

To wear that sort of price tag in your mid-20s can feel burdensome. Or it can be carried with swagger, a la Ronaldo, as an endorsement to be proud of.

Crespo wore the status of football's most-costly more shyly than Ronaldo ever did. He was always a striker of moods. As his head coach at Parma and later at AC Milan, Carlo Ancelotti put it, he could “begin the season as a carcass and end it as a hero.”

Ancelotti first knew Crespo as a 21-year-old, freshly arrived in Italy from Buenos Aires, and recognised a “talented, serious young man” but a leader of the forward line whom Parma fans did not initially warm to. It took a while for the goals to flow in his early months in Serie A.

He had had great expectations thrust on him young, acquiring the nickname ‘Valdanito’ in his native Argentina, ‘Little Valdano.’ It referenced a resemblance in Crespo’s playing style with Jorge Vadano, the charismatic striker who partnered Diego Maradona in attack when Argentina won the 1986 World Cup. It was a hard comparison to live up to and not one he would ever shake off. Compatriots still call Crespo, now 48, ‘Valdanito’.

Ronaldo has his moods, too, but they mostly range from self-assured to angry rather than straying into the sort of introspection Ancelotti detected in the youthful Crespo. The young Ronaldo never minded being likened, by name or fame, to a great predecessor. When he joined Madrid, he wore the number nine jersey vacated only two years earlier by Brazil’s Ronaldo, who had scored 103 goals in three=and-a-half seasons there. The Portuguese Ronaldo – who inherited his preferred number seven shirt after a year in Spain – went on to score 450 goals at better than one-per-game over nine seasons at Madrid.

But he was not always such a fabulous finisher, and, on two memorable occasions, he was urged to look at Crespo’s accomplished eye for goal and take lessons. That was after the last time Crespo faced Ronaldo in a Champions League knockout tie, in the Uefa version, when Crespo was with AC Milan and the 20-year-old Ronaldo was in his second season at United.

The Italian club won each leg, Crespo the scorer in Manchester, seizing on a goalkeeping error, and in Milan, with a header, leaping high, straining to meet and direct a cross. “There was not much between the teams,” the United manager Alex Ferguson would say, “but over two games Milan’s experience told. Their ratio of taking chances was better.”

Ferguson implied United’s precocious forwards, Ronaldo, and the then teenaged Wayne Rooney should learn from the 29-year-old Crespo’s cool decision-making in front of goal. “Sometimes we were rash,” said Ferguson, “players trying to shoot from too far when they could have passed. When you have young players of 19 and 20 you have not got the final product, but in two, three years from now you"ll be talking about them.”

His foresight was right. Almost two decades later, Ronaldo is still being talked about. And he’s still shooting from afar. The Nassr veteran’s last attempt at an equaliser in Abu Dhabi last Monday was a speculative effort launched, with time running out, all the way from the halfway line. It landed wide of the target.

Crespo’s two goals to eliminate United from Europe back in early 2005 were matches number two and three in the back catalogue of contests between ‘Valdanito’ and Ronaldo. In their first meeting, a season earlier, they were both newcomers to the English Premier League, Crespo on the winning side for Chelsea against United; the fourth head-to-head was another Chelsea win, in 2005/06, Crespo a late substitute for Chelsea once they had a resounding 3-0 lead against a United who had taken off Ronaldo with 25 minutes to go.

But the standout nights of Crespo’s five-out-of-five wins against Ronaldo, as player and coach, have been the Champions League contests, European and Asian. That 2005 Milan-United duel set Milan on the road to the 2005 European Cup final. At the time, Crespo told this reporter in the course of a long interview of the personal renewal he felt at Milan, where he was on loan from Chelsea after an unhappy first year in London, and the learnings he had taken about man-management during the period: “Understanding situations on a human level is no small thing in our profession,” he said.

Ancelotti always recognised the thoughtfulness, the emotional intelligence in Crespo the player and gleaned from that his potential as a coach. When Milan dramatically lost the 2004/05 Champions League final in Istanbul, having, thanks to two Crespo goals, gone into half time against Liverpool 3-0 up, Ancelotti noted that “of all the players, Crespo probably took it hardest.

“He deserved to hoist the Champions League more than all the others,” Ancelotti said in his memoir, Preferisco la Coppa. “When we hired him from Chelsea he was a different man: gawky, slow, depressed. He worked like mad to recover. And he succeeded. He was the old Crespo once more, my prize student, my good, close friend.”

Ancelotti has followed Crespo’s coaching career with supportive interest, congratulating him on the trophies he has guided clubs to in Argentina, Brazil and Qatar. Ancelotti also keeps an eye out for Ronaldo, the main man at Real Madrid during Ancelotti’s first, Champions League-winning spell at Madrid from 2013 to 2015. And the Italian would be the first to advise “prize student” Crespo that no tie, least of all one poised at only 1-0, is secure against a wounded, hungry CR7.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 3:20 AM