Yokohama v Al Ain: Hernan Crespo urges his side to thrive off pressure in ACL final

Argentinian coach says facing Harry Kewell's Yokohama F Marinos team will be a 'beautiful experience'

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Hernan Crespo has called for his Al Ain players to embrace the pressure of trying to finally land the Asian Champions League title for a second time in the club’s history.

The UAE side, winners of the rebranded competition's inaugural edition in 2003, face final debutants Yokohama F Marinos of Japan in the first leg of the showpiece at the Yokohama International Stadium on Saturday.

Twice runners-up since they became the first – they remain the only – Emirati team to lift the continent’s most coveted club trophy, Al Ain contest a first final in almost a decade.

Crespo’s men have been superb en route to their clash with Yokohama, seeing off Saudi heavyweights Al Nassr and Al Hilal in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, respectively.

Speaking on Friday in Yokohama on the eve of Al Ain’s most important match since their silver medal in 2016, Crespo said of the stress facing his side: “It’s not easy to reach the final in Asia now; we worked very hard to arrive here.

“But to feel pressure is normal … it’s normal. Because you play in a final in a very [prestigious] event and it’s normal to feel something special because the situation is special.

“But we need to live with this situation and to live this moment. Because it will be a great moment independent of the final result. It’s a very beautiful experience to be part of.”

Crespo said Al Ain were “proud” to be in the final and praised “great team” Yokohama, who perhaps similar to his own side, were not expected to reach the Champions League final.

Until this year, the Japanese club had never before been beyond the last 16. However, they survived having a man sent off in the semi-final second leg last month to defeat South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai on penalties.

“Really, I respect all the opponents,” Crespo said. “We know they’re a great team. But, in the same way, I’m always focused on my team, in trying to respect our identity, our reality, and play our football. I’m focused on that.”

Saturday sees Crespo face off for a trophy for a second time against Harry Kewell. The current Yokohama manager, Kewell was part of the Liverpool team that defeated Crespo’s AC Milan in the thrilling 2004/05 Uefa Champions League final.

Crespo scored twice in Istanbul to put the Italians 3-0 up at half-time, only for Liverpool to eventually prevail on penalties.

“It’s an amazing situation that we will face in another Champions League final,” Crespo said on Friday. "We always meet only in the great events. It was a very difficult night for me, but it’s like this.

“Now we face [one another] again and it’s a pleasure to meet him again after a long, long, long time. And also because we will face [one another] in another situation; no longer as a football player, but as coaches.

“The life keeps going and we try to reinvent our life. And we are here again, to be competitive like when we were young.”

Crespo confirmed he would wait until Friday’s final training session to determine if defender Erik would be fit to play the first leg. The Brazil-born full-back, who scored the decisive goal in last month’s 5-4 aggregate victory against Hilal, suffered a foot injury in the second leg and has not played since.

Irrespective of that, Al Ain will no doubt be aiming for a positive result at an almost-capacity stadium, with the second leg to come at their Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on May 25.

However, Crespo said: “When you play in two legs you understand the game is 180 minutes or more. Then nothing that will happen here can decide the final.

“We understand that the first half will be here, away, in difficult atmosphere, and we need to show our best just to leave open the opportunity to finish in a happy-ending result at home.

“But nothing that can happen during this first leg will decide it.”

Updated: May 10, 2024, 3:23 PM