Al Hilal v Al Ain: Hernan Crespo's side through to Asian Champions League final

UAE team advance 5-4 on aggregate despite 2-1 defeat to Saudi giants in Riyadh

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Al Ain stood strong to Al Hilal and their luminaries, to a boiling and baying home support, to the early concession, the magnitude of the moment and the unrelenting pinch of the pressure, and strode into the Asian Champions League final.

Celebrated as the only Emirati champions of the continent, the UAE club cast aside their starry Saudi Arabian counterparts in Riyadh on Tuesday night, thanks to a display of defiance and durability.

They will return home to a hero’s welcome, and the realisation they sit two games from matching those revered predecessors of more than two decades ago.

Four-two up from last week’s semi-final first leg on home turf, Al Ain entered enemy territory, puffed out their chests and pushed back against their much-fancied rivals.

They even conceded a penalty in the opening minute, the worst possible start offered up. If the roof of the enclosed still-new Kingdom Arena could come off, it would have at that point. The “Blue Power”, Hilal’s hardcore fans with the shark-motif flags, smelt blood in the water.

But Hernan Crespo’s men rallied, responded in a flash, were reeled back again and then rocked on through. They may have lost 2-1 on the night, but they emerged 5-4 victors on aggregate, the most towering of giants slain. Hilal, runners-up last year, are record, four-time Asian champions.

Yet Al Ain, winners in 2003 and silver medallists in 2005 and 2016, are finalists in 2024.

They managed to give up an early goal but still stuck to the task at hand. Defender Kouame Autonne slid into Hilal winger Michael before the tempo was set, VAR intervened, and the official pointed to the spot.

Ruben Neves, just one of a number of Hilal headline summer signings, swept the ball high into Al Ain’s right-hand corner, goalkeeper Khalid Essa sent the other way. Deficit halved, it was a dream start for the hosts.

However, Al Ain jabbed back. Kaku missed with an unmarked header, before Erik landed what would prove to be the knockout blow.

On 11 minutes, the Brazil-born full-back foraged forward on the left, continued his run, and finished Yahia Nader's pull-back from the edge of the Hilal area, flummoxing Yassine Bounou.

The Moroccan goalkeeper, recalled at the expense of fellow foreign recruit Kalidou Koulibaly – Hassan Al Tambakti took the former Chelsea man's place in defence – could barely move.

For the first time in what felt an eternity, the venue fell silent. Erik took off towards the corner right in front of the most vocal section of the Hilal support. Not long after, though, he fell to the ground with an injury and had to be substituted.

Still, Al Ain ploughed on. They were grateful that Ahmed Barman’s flicked header cannoned off his own post, that Michael volleyed the rebound high over the crossbar. That Ali Al Bulaihi then headed wide when free from a corner.

That said, Soufiane Rahimi was always a threat on the counter. Al Ain’s lead light in the first leg and throughout the tournament – he sits atop the competition’s scoring charts – shot wide, had a penalty award overturned by VAR, and just about failed to get enough purchase on his shot when played in over the top.

But five minutes into the second half, Salem Al Dawsari breathed life back into Hilal. The Saudi winger, the reigning Asian player of the year, latched on to an Al Ain header in their area and drilled his shot across Essa and into the bottom corner.

Moments later, the Al Ain captain blocked brilliantly with his legs as Michael bore down on goal, the tie's leveller there for the taking. Autonne then headed clear Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s seemingly certain goal.

With 18 minutes remaining, Al Ain had a goal disallowed, Mathias Palacios’ powerful header ruled out for an offside in the build-up. Replays showed it was marginal. Quite incredibly, they would have another chalked off not long from the 90 minutes, Palacios finishing a fine sweeping counter only for a foul to have been called earlier in the move.

For the second time, hopes, of the players and Al Ain’s pocket of fans tucked away in the corner at that end, were dashed. At the death, in the seventh minute of the 11 added on, Essa somehow repelled Al Bulaihi’s header; in the eighth, Milinkovic-Savic somehow blasted over from under the Al Ain crossbar.

And that was it. Al Ain had held on, displaying their might and mettle to see off the heavyweight Hilal. A fourth Asian Champions League final was theirs.

Updated: May 06, 2024, 9:25 AM