Teamwork makes the dream work for Asian Champions League finalists Al Ain

UAE club's colossal collective endeavour against Saudi giants Nassr and Hilal in Asian Champions League has delivered them to a fourth final in their history

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Park Yong-woo collapsed to the turf, sodden with sweat, his legs unable to carry him any more. Not far from view, Yahia Nader was on his knees, head in hands, barely able to take in the moment, take in the accomplishment.

Some way away, to his left, Soufiane Rahimi embraced whichever teammate was near enough to wrap his arms around, before breaking free and pointing to the sky. Clearly overcome, the Moroccan masked his emotion by hiding his face in his hands. Still, the sensation washing over him was obvious.

Kaku, his colleague and conspirator in Al Ain’s incredible resistance, had already sunk to the ground, right in front of the UAE’s modest but mighty support, arms aloft. He had to be helped back to his feet by Ahmed Barman, who raced from the bench.

Al Ain, apparently against all odds and confronted with the continent’s most decorated club, had done it, Asian Champions League finalists for the first time in almost a decade.

They survived the Al Hilal onslaught, defended a potential place in the showpiece like their lives depended on it, and surfaced from the suffocating Kingdom Arena with history in sight.

Hilal triumphed on the night in Riyadh, 2-1 up from the beginning of the semi-final second half, but could not find a third to take the tie into extra time.

Boy, how they tried. Khalid Essa, the Al Ain captain, was inspired, blocking Michael when staring him fully in the eyes, then late on palming away the Brazilian’s near-post shot. Deep into injury time, Essa clawed away Ali Al Bulaihi’s point-blank header.

Hilal will surely rue some uncharacteristically wayward finishing. What Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would give to have back the final attempt of a pulsating encounter, when he sent the ball somehow high over the Al Ain crossbar from right underneath it. It had arrived in the 98th of the 99 minutes allotted.

What Hilal would have given, too, for Aleksandar Mitrovic, their standout striker absent through injury, to have been there in that moment instead. A sure-fire hit since his transfer from the Premier League last summer, he would have most likely succeeded where his fellow Serbia international erred.

But, as Al Ain manager Hernan Crespo was at pains to point out post-match, this was about his players. The Garden City club had dispatched Al Nassr and their Riyadh counterparts, two of the continent’s best-stocked sides, in the quarter-final and semis, and deserved to stride into the showpiece.

Al Ain were superb for three quarters of the last-eight clash against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co, then blew away Hilal’s litany of grandees last week in a dizzying opening 38-minute spell at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. The 4-2 victory, which snapped the Saudi Arabians’ world-record 34-match win streak, provided the platform for Tuesday’s titanic performance.

Essa, one of the only relics of Al Ain’s silver medallists from 2016 – their most recent Champions League final appearance – was a merited man of the match at Kingdom Arena, but it could have gone to many in white.

Rahimi, the tournament’s top scorer and chief tormentor of both Nassr and Hilal, ran himself into the ground, a constant outlet for his team to seize snippets of release. Kaku and Matias Palacios were a more-than-able support cast; the Argentine had two goals disallowed late on.

Nader and Barman blanketed the centre of the park; Park at times what felt the entirety of the defence. Alongside the remoulded midfielder, Kouame Autonne was immense, showcasing remarkable resolve to rebound from his concession of a penalty in the very first minute to repeatedly repel Hilal’s advances.

At full-back, Bandar Al Ahbabi did all he could to limit Salem Al Dawsari, even if the reigning Asian Player of the Year renewed the hosts’ hopes six minutes into the second half with a sumptuous strike.

Still, Al Ain stood firm. In the face of Hilal, a raucous home support, and everything earning a place in the final of Asian club football’s marquee event encapsulates.

Facing the media afterwards, Crespo looked a man fighting to regain his typically ice-cool composure, his every breath audible through the mic. Gathering his thoughts, the Argentine used his words only to praise his players, who “played with the heart and defended so well the name of our club, Al Ain”.

“Our” club felt fitting. Because that’s what it took. A colossal collective endeavour, a team in tune with one another and fastened tight to the promise of writing their names in history.

Al Ain have some way to go, of course. Since becoming the first UAE club to capture the Champions League – 21 years on, they remain the only – they have twice contested the final and lost both. Next month, they will look to finally go one better.

For now, though, let them bask in a display up there with the best of them. Across two legs, they dug deep and offered all they had. For the second time in less than a week, it proved enough.

Updated: May 06, 2024, 9:26 AM