Hernan Crespo: Asian Champions League triumph reward for Al Ain's 'courage and heart'

UAE club overturn final first-leg deficit to thrash Yokohama F Marinos 5-1 at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium

Powered by automated translation

Hernan Crespo said Al Ain deserve to be continental champions, adding the club’s Asian Champions League success was for “all the country”.

The UAE side, the only Emirati club to lift the trophy, defeated Yokohama F Marinos 5-1 in the second leg at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Saturday night to take the title 6-3 on aggregate. Al Ain had lost the corresponding fixture in Japan 2-1 two weeks ago.

Both Soufiane Rahimi and Kodjo Laba struck twice, with Kaku notching the hosts’ other goal from the penalty spot. Yan Matheus had scored for Yokohama five minutes before half-time to level the tie at 3-3.

However, the visitors’ hopes of triumphing in their first Champions League final diminished when goalkeeper William Popp was shown a straight red card deep into first-half stoppage time.

The win marked Al Ain’s second Asian crown, and first since 2003. They have been runners-up twice since, in 2005 and 2016.

“We are very proud of this title,” a delighted Crespo said afterward. “We are very proud because we not only represent the club or the city, but all the country. And we are very happy for that. It is really, really difficult to describe all the emotions.

"We deserve this title. Every time when we faced the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and even the finals, as underdogs. At the beginning nobody believed in us, and we did it. These guys, these players, did something big."

Appointed in November, Crespo has masterminded Al Ain’s remarkable run to the title. The Garden City club defeated Saudi Arabian powerhouses Al Nassr and Al Hilal in the quarter-final and semi-final, respectively.

On Saturday, needing from the outset to overturn a one-goal deficit, they opened the scoring on eight minutes through Rahimi and added a second on the half hour via Kaku’s spot-kick.

Rahimi put Al Ain back in front overall on 67 minutes, taking the 2023/24 tournament’s top scorer to 13 goals for the campaign. Laba, a late substitute, then added Al Ain’s fourth and fifth in stoppage time.

Crespo, who tweaked the team's system slightly for the second leg, was interrupted during the press conference by his jubilant players who danced and sang all around him.

“I’m not a genius," the Argentine said. "I tried something different with my staff. But football is dynamic, and we must be ready. Everything is about the players, not about me.

“The only thing I said to the players was we must believe. We have talent to play football on the floor and find corridors and make our passes. And believe in themselves. I think that is the point.

"Trust to do what we did in the training session. But it’s not easy to make something like this performance at this high level in a final.  It is difficult to see this superiority in a final, in terms of managing a game. It’s difficult to explain.

"Because I repeat, I’m not a genius. I tried to manage the game. Here, the most important thing is the players. They played with courage, they played with heart. It’s not easy to play these kinds of matches with this personality.”

In winning, Al Ain also qualified for next year’s inaugural, expanded Fifa Club World Cup in the United States. There, Al Ain will make up the 32-team tournament alongside the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and River Plate.

Again, emphasising his players’ commitment to capturing the Champions League, Crespo added: “They believed in their talent, they believed in the way that we want to play.

“The most important thing is they defended our identity. The identity is the way that we want to play, the way that we’re training every single day.

“They respect the time of every single training session and doing it in a final is not easy. And they did it. The performance was amazing.”

Meanwhile, Yokohama manager Harry Kewell lambasted referee Ilgiz Tantashev for the second-leg defeat, claiming the Uzbek official had been easily swayed by what he described to be Al Ain’s gamesmanship.

"My players were fantastic, it's just a shame that we got robbed tonight by a bad referee," the Australian said. "I thought the refereeing decisions were shocking; they were terrible. They were playing the game and he fell for it. But congratulations to Al Ain.

“The [Yokohama] support has been excellent; they're fantastic to travel the way they did. It's just a shame it wasn't a fair enough game to be able to put on a good show."

Updated: May 26, 2024, 4:27 AM