Al Ain aim to stick together 'like family' in pursuit of Asian Champions League glory

Kouame Autonne and Kaku credit collective effort for win over Al Hilal in semi-final

Erik believes Al Ain fans can make a difference in AFC Champions League final

Erik believes Al Ain fans can make a difference in AFC Champions League final
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Al Ain defender Kouame Autonne put his side’s progress to the Asian Champions League final down to their “family” ethic, saying the UAE club will work tirelessly to come back even stronger to clinch the trophy.

Al Ain, continental champions in 2003, came through a dramatic semi-final against record four-time winners Al Hilal, advancing to the title match 5-4 on aggregate despite a 2-1 defeat in the second leg in Riyadh on Tuesday night.

Hernan Crespo’s side, 4-2 winners on home soil last week, had to be at their resilient best to go through, with Hilal pinning them back for much of the second half at a packed and partisan Kingdom Arena.

In ultimately limiting Hilal to two goals, Al Ain booked a place in the final for the fourth time in their history, after appearances in 2003, 2005 and 2016.

Speaking to The National in the Saudi capital as the result was still sinking in, centre-back Autonne struggled to sum up his emotions, having played an integral role in Al Ain’s success.

“Right now, I feel very, very happy because I’m in the final,” he said. “It was a difficult game, a great game against Al Hilal, who are a very, very big team.

“I want to say thank you to the fans who came to see us. Because of them we pushed on the pitch, and everybody sees that in the result. Just a big thank you to them.

“You saw in the stadium, so many fans from Al Hilal, and if our support didn’t push us, we don’t get this power to fight until the end. We needed this on the pitch.”

Autonne, who signed for Al Ain in 2021 from Khorfakkan, was one of many Al Ain players who performed superbly on the night – even after he conceded a first-minute penalty that Ruben Neves then dispatched to hand Hilal the perfect start.

“There is no secret, it’s the team,” Autonne said. “All of us are fighting 100 per cent on the pitch. There is no best player or not. We are all on the same level and we fight, like a family. We take all the games seriously, like always.

“I hope and I want to give more to the club, because they trusted in me when I was in a small team, so I can give only 100 per cent of my strength to them for the final.”

Al Ain will face off against Yokohama F Marinos for the title next month after the Japanese club triumphed in their semi-final against South Korea's Ulsan HD on penalties on Wednesday. Ulsan had won last week's first leg 1-0 but lost the reverse fixture in Yokohama 3-2 to force the shootout.

Yokohama prevailed 5-4 in the shootout to set up the final against Al Ain, with the first leg in Japan on May 11 before the return match in Al Ain one week later.

“The semi-final is finished already,” Autonne said. “Now we must focus on the final and be ready, because I know it will be a difficult game again.

“So we’re going to train seriously and come back even stronger.”

Autonne’s teammate Kaku was another key contributor in Al Ain’s journey to the final. The Paraguayan, a summer signing from Saudi side Al Taawoun, scored in the semi-final first leg in the Garden City and, in the return, worked tirelessly for Al Ain to secure one of the most memorable moments in their history.

“I’m very happy to qualify for the final,” Kaku told The National. "It’s one more step. Now we need to rest - but after that we need to prepare for the final.

“We fight [for everything]. I know Al Hilal bring top players from Europe, but we play with heart in all the game, and this was the key to qualify for the final.”

Like Autonne, Kaku praised the small but vocal Al Ain support present at the Kingdom Arena on Tuesday night.

“Both teams are top, top teams in Asia, and I want to say thank you to both teams’ fans: Hilal fans for the respect and the Ainawi [Al Ain supporters] for coming here and supporting the team.

“I receive many messages [on social media saying], 'I want to take the Asian Cup'. But, for now, we have to rest and recover well."

Updated: May 06, 2024, 9:25 AM