'Amazing' Al Ain deserve place in ACL final after overcoming Al Hilal, says Hernan Crespo

UAE club beat Saudi giants 5-4 on aggregate and will meet either Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos or Ulsan HD of South Korea in two-legged final

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Hernan Crespo praised the “personality” and “courage” of his Al Ain players after the UAE club defeated Saudi Arabian rivals Al Hilal to reach the Asian Champions League final.

Al Ain, the only Emirati side to capture the continental crown, triumphed 5-4 on aggregate in the semi-final despite losing 2-1 in Tuesday’s second leg in Riyadh.

Hilal, record four-time Asian champions, had a two-goal deficit to overturn at Kingdom Arena, and got off to the perfect start when Ruben Neves scored on four minutes from the penalty spot.

Al Ain quickly equalised on the night through full-back Erik, only for Salem Al Dawsari’s strike five minutes into the second half to breathe life back into Hilal’s comeback.

However, a combination of wayward finishing from the hosts and a man-of-the-match display from goalkeeper Khalid Essa – Al Ain did have two goals ruled out late on – ensured the 2003 champions reached a fourth continental final – and first since 2016.

They will face in the showpiece either Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos or Ulsan HD of South Korea, who meet on Wednesday. Ulsan are 1-0 up from the first leg.

Speaking in the aftermath of Al Ain’s huge aggregate victory, Crespo said: “We always need to say thank you for the players, congratulations for the players. They believe, they work hard, they fight, and they deserve to go through. There are great people working very hard in Al Ain and they deserve this moment. I’m very happy to be part of it.”

In his debut season at the club, Crespo has guided Al Ain past Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in the quarter-finals and then a Hilal side containing the likes of Neves, Yassine Bounou, Sergei Milinkovic-Savic, Malcom and reigning AFC Player of the Year Al Dawsari.

Previous to meeting Al Ain, who prevailed 4-2 in last week’s first leg, Hilal had won their past 34 matches – considered a world record.

Asked how his side overcame the current runaway Saudi Pro League leaders, Crespo said: “The reason is because we respect ourselves and we respect the opponent. We know very well that we were coming here in this knockout leg as the underdogs. They are the favourites, at home.

“And it’s not easy to come here and play the way these players play with this personality, this courage. It’s not easy. It’s not easy.

“We played compact. We played as a family, and really, really it’s an amazing moment. Because when you see your team play this way, and deserve to go through. If you analyse both games, we deserve to go through.

“And against a great opponent … a great opponent. With a lot of history in the last years.”

On the significance of eliminating both Nassr and Hilal, boasting Asian football’s two strongest squads, Crespo replied: “Tonight is time to talk about our players and our team. We talk so much about the two teams we eliminated because we were underdogs in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, and we go through.

“These players deserve we talk about them. They play in an amazing way … amazing. With a great personality, in a very difficult place to play.

“Because a lot fans, full stadium, was beautiful for everyone who likes football and follows this passion. To play in this hot atmosphere is not easy. And they played very well.

“So I don’t have any other words for other people; only for my players, because they deserve everything, they deserve to be in all the front pages.

“Our fans must be proud of them. Because they play with the heart and defend very well the name of our club, Al Ain.”

Al Ain captain Essa, who has recently been subject to criticism for his performances, said: “I would like to say, I know my performance tonight was good, all praise be to Allah. There have been down times, difficult times, but I have been working on restoring my level.

“In the times I was performing lower than usual there were claims and requests to take me out of the team, but during that period I was trusted by the coach, by the team management and also by the staff, so they gave me the confidence so that I could return to my usual performance and quality.”

Updated: May 06, 2024, 8:48 AM