Yokohama v Al Ain: Harry Kewell says Marinos look 'fantastic' ahead of ACL final

Australian coach backs his side to cope with whatever their UAE opponents throw at them in first leg

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Yokohama F Marinos manager Harry Kewell is backing his team to again show their ability to overcome any obstacle when they meet Al Ain in the Asian Champions League final.

The Japanese side, through for the first time to the continent’s showpiece match, host their UAE rivals in the first leg at the Yokohama International Stadium on Saturday night (2pm UAE). The return match takes place in Al Ain on May 25.

Yokohama’s previous best finish in the Champions League was the Round of 16, in 2020 and 2022, but they have displayed considerable grit to go to the title-deciding tie in this year’s tournament.

In the last 16, Kewell's side needed a 120th-minute winner in the second leg to advance against Bangkok United, before they then eked past Shandong Taishan in the quarter-final despite having a man down in the second leg.

In the semi-final, against Ulsan Hyundai, Yokohama had to again progress after being reduced to 10 men – defender Takumi Kamijima was sent off in the 39th minute – triumphing this time via a penalty shootout.

“We’ve come across hurdles throughout this competition where we’ve been put in situations that have challenged us and we’ve come through that,” Kewell said during Friday’s pre-match press conference in Yokohama.

“I’m confident in my team’s ability. They’ve looked fantastic in training, they’re working hard, we’re playing the way that we want to play, and we’re excited for this challenge.

“It’s not often you get to play in an AFC Champions League final, so it’s important to realise that but obviously understand there’s still a huge step to take. And we have a chance to take that step. But we know it’s going to be difficult.

“Al Ain’s a very difficult team to beat. I feel that they’ve created the same kind of journey as us – always kind of being the underdogs as well in their group, but always coming through. So it’s going to be a fantastic challenge for both of us and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Al Ain have enjoyed a rollercoaster run to the final, defeating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in the quarter-final and then, in the last four, record four-time Asian champions Al Hilal.

As 2003 champions, the UAE club are the only team from the Emirates to have won the Champions League. Saturday represents their fourth final overall – they finished runner-up in 2005 and 2016 – while, in Soufiane Rahimi, they boast the 2023/24 tournament’s top scorer.

“My main concentration is obviously my team,” Kewell said. “But as far as Al Ain go, from my knowledge and from what I’ve watched, they’re very much a dominating team where they like to counter-attack, they’ve got speed, they can play out from the back, they’re very aggressive and they try to make the opposition make mistakes and try to pounce on that.

“The games I’ve seen, especially in the Champions League, they’ve been very aggressive, they’ve taken their chances very well. But, again, it’s going to be a different test for us, but it’s a test we’re looking forward to. And we know it’s going to be a challenge. For us it’s exciting.”

Kewell, a Uefa Champions League winner in 2005 with Liverpool, conceded he was not used to playing two-legged finals, but said Yokohama understood that “this isn’t over after 90 minutes” on Saturday.

On the importance of taking a positive result to Al Ain in two weeks’ time, the Australian said: “It’s important to win all games, home or away. My mentality as a player and a coach is that it shouldn’t really change playing at home or away.

“The only thing that really changes is the colour of the shirt the fans [in the stadium] wear, and obviously the look of the stadium. But, generally, you’re playing on the same pitch, with the same players.

“That’s the kind of mentality I’m looking for in my players: to play home or away and go out and feel free to go out there and express themselves. Ideally, in any scenario, you want to win, so tomorrow it would be great to get off to a good start. But, again, that’s not the be all and end all.”

Kewell added: “But take note of this: we will not be afraid to go out there and preform on [May 25] as well. I know they’ve got fantastic fans, that the stadium’s hostile, which I’m looking forward to.

“But I appreciate it because that means they show their loyalty to their club. But we’re going to have a huge, huge, huge crowd here tomorrow - they’re saying it’s going to be close to capacity - so Al Ain are going to have to deal with this.

“So, for me, we have to just concentrate on what we need to do. There is a second part to this, which is strange, so you have to keep in check your emotions because nothing’s going to be finalised until [May 25].

“But we just worry about the next game - I know it’s a cliché - and tomorrow’s our next game.”

Updated: May 10, 2024, 4:41 PM