Yokohama v Al Ain: UAE side's formidable home record means ACL final is far from over

Hernan Crespo's team confident of turnaround having lost first leg 2-1 at the Yokohama International Stadium

Powered by automated translation

Hernan Crespo declared his trust in a turnaround, that the narrow defeat that had just terminated near Tokyo had not shaken his conviction.

Not long after, defender Khalid Al Hashemi rued how the opening leg of Al Ain’s first Asian Champions League final in an age had been decided by “the little details”. Yet he quickly reminded how the tie was still very much in the balance.

Kaku echoed his teammate’s sentiment; Park Yong-woo too. The disappointment was writ large – Al Hashemi spoke of the players being “devastated” – but there remains another chapter to be penned in this sudden rivalry with Yokohama F Marinos; another opportunity for Al Ain to grasp a second continental crown 21 years after the first.

On Saturday, at a thronged Yokohama International Stadium that bounced and beckoned on the hosts for the most part, Al Ain had not been at their best.

Granted, they were 1-0 up against Yokohama F Marinos as early as the 12th minute, Soufiane Rahimi devastating once more on the break, Mohammed Abbas supplying the finish from the rebound.

And they did have other moments, as well. Right on the half hour, Matias Palacios celebrated what he and Al Ain thought was a second goal of the night. Having raced off and revelled in front of their pocket of fans tucked away in the corner, VAR soon dampened Al Ain’s delight. Palacios had gone a fraction early to receive the ball that set him free. The call was tight; those pesky VAR lines had to be applied.

Yet Yokohama created chances of their own. Their finishing was wayward at times, at others Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Essa was inspired.

But, faced with the unfamiliarity of a first Champions League final and the pressure that brings, Yokohama fought back. Eventually, Harry Kewell’s side got their reward when Asahi Uenaka equalised, and Kouta Watanabe snatched it late on.

Speaking to the gathered media as his players stayed out on the pitch and took in their supporters’ applause, Kewell urged caution within his group.

"I'm not going to sit here and say the game is finished," the former Liverpool forward said. "I'm not silly enough to do that … they can enjoy the moment, but there's still a long way to go in this tie."

That’s not to say Kewell wasn’t confident on delivering Yokohama, like Al Ain a surprise finalist, the trophy. He predicted they will score in the Garden City, that his side would relish the challenge.

In all likelihood, that is what it will be. Al Ain have been almost exemplary at home this season in Asia’s foremost club competition, winning all but one of their six matches there.

In the quarter-finals, they repelled Cristiano Ronaldo and his star-studded Al Nassr, triumphing 1-0; in the semi-final, against a glittering Al Hilal on a world-record run of 34 wins, Al Ain raced to a 3-0 lead within 38 minutes and ultimately prevailed 4-2.

“I’m very confident,” Crespo said plainly in the aftermath on Saturday. “Because we play at home, and I know what it means to play at home with our fans. Today was not so easy because the [Marinos] fans shout and support their team, and in two weeks it will be the opposite.

“We need to take advantage of that. We believe we can do it.”

Undoubtedly, Al Ain will enjoy a similarly fierce backing on May 25 as Yokohama did on Saturday. For sure, they will have to harness it like their Japanese opponents, like they did in the previous rounds when up against two of the most talent-packed teams in Asia.

In saying that, Al Ain must handle the tension that comes with it. The Champions League represents the title the club covet most, that famed 2003 success growing more sepia-tinged by the year.

In 2016, their most recent final appearance, Al Ain lost 2-1 away to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the initial leg – they struck first in that encounter also – but failed to get over the line. They drew at home to lose 3-2 overall.

They will be determined that history does not repeat. As Kaku urged before the team set off for the long journey back to the UAE and with the opening result still to sink in, Al Ain must stay strong, stay together.

“Believe … only believe,” he said. “And the good result will come.”

Updated: May 12, 2024, 2:00 PM