Hernan Crespo can write his name into Al Ain folklore by winning Asian Champions League

Argentine coach must mastermind Garden City club's two-legged final against Japanese side Yokohoma F Marinos

Hernan Crespo has seen his Al Ain team overcome Saudi Pro League sides Al Nassr and Al Hilal on way the ACL final. Photo: Al Ain Club
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It represents something of a quirk that the Asian Champions League has provided the nadir of Hernan Crespo’s still-emergent managerial career yet could soon offer its zenith.

In charge last year of Al Duhail, the Qatar club he guided to a treble in his debut season in the Gulf, the Argentine experienced arguably his worst night as a coach.

Duhail, never so deep into the continent’s premier club competition, were swatted aside by Al Hilal in a one-legged, and tremendously one-sided, semi-final in Doha. They were four goals down within 27 minutes, Odion Ighalo and Co rampant, and even conceded another before half time.

In the end, Duhail would lose 7-0, Hilal pouring forward but then perhaps putting on the brakes. It was already an evisceration; swelling the scoreline further felt almost cruel.

Crespo stood on the touchline at Al Thumama Stadium, a venue that had hosted eight Fifa World Cup matches not long before, unable to stop the bleed.

Afterwards, he spoke of Hilal’s pedigree – they are record four-time Asian champions – of his own club’s inexperience at that level, of the accompanying pressure to perform, of influential players unavailable for selection.

Lessons needed to be learnt, Crespo reminded. Conceivably, that applied to him as much as his team.

Yet, little more than a year later, and having departed Duhail and promptly landed at Al Ain, Crespo appeared to have practised what he preached.

Up against an even starrier Hilal in the semi-final, the Saudi Arabians stacked with prime foreign recruits, Crespo offered before the first leg that the tie would convey, not only how much his side had grown since his November appointment, but himself as a manager, too.

The result suggested considerable progress had been made. Crespo masterminded a memorable 4-2 victory at home, Soufiane Rahimi once more thriving as a remodelled spearhead, to place Al Ain on pole for a place in a first final since 2016.

Al Ain, 2003 Asian champions and thus the only UAE club to wear the crown, had triumphed against the odds and, in the process, ripped from Hilal their cloak of invincibility. The Saudi Pro League leaders’ 34-match win streak, an apparent world record, was brought to an abrupt end.

On the eve of the return leg in Riyadh, though, Crespo played down Al Ain’s advantage. He underscored their underdog tag, despite the scoreline. He emphasised that Hilal, thanks to last summer’s significant spend, were “built to win the Champions League”.

But Al Ain survived conceding in the opening few minutes, retaliated in an instant and, having been breached again at the beginning of the second half, never surrendered to a by-then rampant Hilal. They lost 2-1 in the Saudi capital but prevailed 4-3 on aggregate. A fourth Champions League final was theirs.

Where Crespo had fallen with Duhail, he flourished with Al Ain. Now he stands two matches from forever fastening his name to the storied Garden City club. Yokohama F Marinos, across two legs this month, constitute the final hurdle.

It marks not quite a remarkable turnaround in Crespo’s six months in UAE football, but it is notable all the same. For there have been doubters and detractors during the brief time since his installation as Alfred Schreuder’s replacement in November.

Of course, Crespo is an eminently recognisable name in world football. He was once the most expensive player in the history of the game, a Copa Libertadores winner with River Plate before forming part of that mesmerising, cup-specialist Parma side.

He is a Premier League champion with Chelsea, a three-time Serie A winner with Inter Milan, a Uefa Champions League runner-up with their city rivals AC.

However, despite the managerial successes in Brazil, his native Argentina and in Qatar, Crespo touched down at Al Ain with the Hilal humbling still fresh in the mind. Al Ain fans, always expectant, questioned his employment, querying Crespo’s CV and suitability to the role.

In his first interview, conducted through Al Ain’s official channels, Crespo told of how surprised he was with the excellent standard of squad he had inherited. He cited his passion to work within the club’s “giant and ambitious” objectives; that he has, as a coach, always sought “highly competitive and challenging” projects.

As any incoming manager is wont to do, Crespo stressed that he and his team would work diligently to win over fans, to make them proud so they can “finally take wonderful souvenir photos with trophies”.

As the season reaches its climax, Al Ain remain in the hunt, really, for only one. Third in the Adnoc Pro League but two points off the summit when Crespo came in, while their actual position has not changed, they languish 16 points behind front-runners Al Wasl with six rounds remaining.

Last month, Al Ain exited the President’s Cup at the quarter-final stage, defeated 2-1 by lowly Kalba. On Friday, they lost the League Cup final to Al Wahda, even if Al Ain were by far the better team. Certainly, they did not appear distracted by what lay around the corner, against Yokohama. Still, discord among supporters has kept bubbling.

The Champions League has therefore offered Crespo a reprieve. His side have been beaten twice in nine matches on the continent’s main stage; in the quarter-final, they outplayed, outworked and outfought an Al Nassr team who, like Hilal, have been constructed in part with becoming Asian champions in mind.

But Al Ain were for the majority superior to a group containing Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Aymeric Laporte, Otavio, Marcelo Brozovic and Alex Telles, and emerged victorious (even if it did come down to a penalty shoot-out).

Crespo credits Carlo Ancelotti, his manager and mentor at Parma and then AC Milan, for playing a brand of football he most “adores”. While all coaches tend to mimic slices of managers they have worked under, Crespo proudly states that he believes in Ancelotti’s methods and the style with which the trophy-laden Italian guides his teams.

Ancelotti is the European Champions League’s most decorated manager, lifting the trophy a record four times. He is the only man to have managed teams in five finals, the outlier being the runner-up finish to Liverpool in that lauded 2005 battle in Istanbul.

Crespo played in that match, scoring twice before half time at the Olympic Stadium to give Milan a seemingly unassailable 3-0 lead. Almost two decades on, having retreated to the dugout, he attempts this month to snare its Asian equivalent.

Get past Yokohama, starting on Saturday in Japan and concluding two weeks later in Al Ain, and Crespo will be remembered here only for succeeding where so many before him have failed.

Updated: May 08, 2024, 7:55 AM