Al Ain v Yokohama: UAE club must overcome pressure of history to win ACL final

Hernan Crespo's side trail their Japanese opponents 2-1 from Asian Champions League final first leg

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Chasing a first Asian Champions League crown since 2003, Al Ain find themselves in practically the same situation as they did in 2016.

Just like their last appearance in the continental final, the UAE club go into the home second leg trailing 2-1. As was the case in 2016, Al Ain need to overturn the result on their own patch having registered the opening goal of the showpiece in east Asia.

Nearly a decade on and facing the most important match in UAE club football since, come Saturday, they will be hoping for an altogether different outcome.

Eight years ago, when burnished with a soon-to-be Asian Player of the Year, Al Ain were defied in the second leg in the Garden City and eventually defeated.

The hosts, led then by current Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic, conceded first to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, a heaving Hazza bin Zayed Stadium rocked, their team’s chances of finally claiming the trophy suddenly retreating.

Al Ain did rally, midfielder Lee Myong-joo equalising in an instant, hopes rekindled. But Omar Abdulrahman would never stamp his authority on the encounter, Douglas sent a penalty high into the desert sky, and Al Ain’s aching wait rumbled on.

The draw ensured Jeonbuk prevailed 3-2 on aggregate. If Al Ain had not been as close in an age to landing the continent’s lead club crown, they left feeling never as far from it.

The malaise lingered. Al Ain reached the quarter-finals the following year, but in their four Champions League qualifications thereafter, they failed to progress as deep into the tournament.

Twice they exited at the group stage; in 2021, their most recent participation until this year, they were roundly beaten by Iran’s Foolad in the play-off, banished from the competition before it really took root.

But, three years on, here they are. Ninety minutes or more from a second continental coronation, not only for the club, but the UAE as well. Al Ain remain the Champions League’s sole Emirati winner.

Runners-up in 2005 and 2016, they have another opportunity this weekend to snap that run, to get that monkey off their back, to deliver on the grand stage.

For Jeonbuk in 2016, read Yokohama F Marinos this time around. The Japanese side, coached by former Leeds United and Liverpool forward Harry Kewell, are contesting a first Asian final, but they showed enough in Yokohama two weeks ago to suggest the occasion will not get the better of them.

Perhaps crucially, and just like Jeonbuk, they arrive in Al Ain with the advantage, however slight. How that impacts their opponents’ game plan forms one of the most fascinating storylines heading into the encounter.

Al Ain’s journey to Saturday has been built upon a formidable home record. They have won all but one of their six matches at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, the victories against Al Nassr and Al Hilal, their talent-packed Saudi Arabian favourites from the quarter-finals and semi-finals, coming courtesy of impeccable counter-attacking play.

Tellingly, both formed first legs; now, Al Ain must chase down a lead. Hernan Crespo, you would presume, must reconfigure a strategy that has served so well his side, surprise finalists given their previous opposition. Yet, push too hard, and Yokohama have the quality to pick off Al Ain.

Lessons, too, should be learned from 2016. For sure, the scars do not necessarily run deep within the squad – only Khalid Essa, Ahmed Barman and Saeed Juma remain – but, back then, Al Ain were in some part too burdened by the weight of history.

To that point, handling the tension, harnessing it and channelling it in the right direction, is key on Saturday. For that, Al Ain can lean on experience procured en route to the showpiece: the penalty-shootout win at Nassr; the defiance when faced down by Hilal and in front of a fervent Riyadh support.

Of course, striking first against Yokohama feels vital. Concede instead, as they did in 2016, and memories of that agonising night will rear once more.

Champions League history is against Al Ain, also. Since the tournament rebrand in 2002, only one team have lost the first leg and gone on to lift the trophy (Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad in 2004).

Al Ain, therefore, must buck a trend while battling back the demons of eight years ago. They have proven already that they possess the credentials to prevail in challenging circumstances. Saturday, though, will most probably be decided by Al Ain’s capacity to rise to the moment right when the pressure pinches most.

Updated: May 24, 2024, 6:07 AM