Nobody believed in us, but I believed, says Al Ain coach after historic win

The 14-time UAE champions stunned Yokohama F Marinos to end their 21-year wait for their second continental trophy


Rituraj Borkakoty

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Al Ain's Argentine coach Hernan Crespo and players celebrate after the team won the Asian Champions League final against Japan's Yokohama F. Marinos at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. — AFP
Al Ain's Argentine coach Hernan Crespo and players celebrate after the team won the Asian Champions League final against Japan's Yokohama F. Marinos at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. — AFP

Published: Sun 26 May 2024, 9:54 PM

Last updated: Sun 26 May 2024, 10:15 PM

Hernan Crespo was lost for words after guiding Al Ain to a historic victory in the Asian Champions League final at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in the Garden City on Saturday night.

With the emphatic 5-1 victory over Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos in the second leg of the final for a 6-3 aggregate win (Al Ain had lost the first leg 2-1 in Japan on Monday), the 14-time UAE champions ended their 21-year wait for their second continental trophy.

None of the pundits gave Al Ain, who won their first Asian title in 2003, a chance to put up a fight against the formidable Japanese team even on home turf in the final.

But then, Crespo’s team have made a habit of mocking their epitaph writers, having decimated the marauding Al Hilal in the semis and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in the quarters.

Undeterred by the challenge of overturning a 2-1 deficit, Al Ain stepped on the field brimming with confidence and intent on Saturday evening.

Producing a dazzling passing game, The Boss took the visitors to the sword with Soufiane Rahimi, the Moroccan striker, and Kodjo Laba scoring two goals each.

Paraguayan winger Alejandro Romero also converted a first-half penalty for the home team as Yokohama were reduced to 10 men, and at times, to virtual spectators as the home team ran them ragged with their crisp one-twos.

As celebrations reached a crescendo after the final whistle with euphoric Al Ain fans singing their club anthem, head coach Crespo felt the whole gamut of emotions on the touchline.

Barely seven months after taking over the reins at Al Ain, the legendary Argentinian footballer saw his team become a part of the Emirati football folklore.

“It is very difficult to describe. We are very proud because this doesn't just represent the club or the city, but all of the country,” said Crespo who became the world’s most expensive footballer in 2000 when Lazio bought him from Parma for €56 million.

“We are very happy for that. It is really difficult to describe the emotions. We deserve the title. Every team we faced in the quarterfinals, the semifinal and even the final, we were the underdogs.

“At the beginning, nobody believed in us, but I believed. These guys, these players did something special.”

This Asian campaign also turned out to be a personal redemption for Crespo who crashed to a humiliating 7-0 defeat against Al Hilal over two legs while managing Qatar’s Al Al Duhail last year.

Now as the boss in Al Ain, the former Chelsea, Inter Milan and AC Milan striker has hit a new high in his storied career.

The key to the incredible turn of fortune was his team’s fearless approach.

“We changed a little bit the strategy, it's not the same game when you play at home as away,” he said.

“You have to understand the situation with the players, some players didn't play while 100% in shape, but they played with heart.

“I'm not a genius, but I tried to work with my staff. Football is dynamic and it's about the players, not me.

“The only thing I said to the players is that we must believe, that we have the talent to play football on the floor.”

The team rose to the challenge as they started the second leg aggressively, always looking for goals as Rahimi, after a delightful one-two with Yahia Nader who produced an exquisite backheel, scored the first goal in the eighth minute.

The fantastic goal opened the floodgates as Al Ain stunned the Japanese team by pouncing on every opportunity to find the back of the net.

Ivorian defender Kouame Autonne’s poor clearance, which allowed Brazilian winger Yan Matheus to score the only goal for Yokohama in the 40th minute, was Al Ain’s only blemish for the night.

But even that defensive lapse would never take the shine off the glorious night for Al Ain.

“It's not easy to make something like this, this performance, at this high level, in a final,” said Crespo.

“The players, they play with courage, they play with heart. It's not easy to play these kind of matches with this personality.”


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