Kewell and Crespo’s Asian Champions League showdown marks end of era

<span>Hernán Crespo and Harry Kewell embrace before the first leg of this year’s AFC Champions League final.</span><span>Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP</span>
Hernán Crespo and Harry Kewell embrace before the first leg of this year’s AFC Champions League final.Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

It’s hard to look past the 2005 Champions League reunion of Harry Kewell and Hernán Crespo as they meet in the second leg of the final of the Asian version on Saturday. The Argentinian scored twice in Istanbul and yet left empty-handed while Kewell famously limped off when it was all going wrong for Liverpool but still has that winner’s medal. There’s more to the game however, on and off the pitch.

Crespo and Al-Ain welcome Yokohama F Marinos and their Australian manager to the United Arab Emirates. The Japanese team have a 2-1 lead from the first leg that took place two weeks ago at the Nissan Stadium. Crespo never won a Champions League as a player but overcoming that one goal deficit would surely set him on a course back to Europe.

It would be the end of a meandering route. After brief coaching spells in Italy, Crespo really got started in South America, winning trophies in Argentina and then Brazil. He did the same after moving to Qatar, clinching the league title with Al-Duhail. A move to Al-Ain, Asian champions in 2003 and then runners-up on two more occasions, was still something of a sideways step at the time but the continental title would confirm the 48-year-old as one of the hottest coaching properties outside the big leagues of Europe.

Related: Harry Kewell’s Yokohama defy the odds to reach Asian Champions League final

Kewell also started out in Europe but his coaching career stalled down in the fifth tier. Taking over Crawley Town in League Two in 2017, there were shorter and sourer spells at Notts County and Oldham Athletic before seven winless games in charge of Barnet in the National League ended with the sack in 2021.

To go from there to the Asian Champions League final is quite a turnaround. Ange Postecoglou played a big part in two ways. The first was giving his compatriot a coaching job at Celtic in 2022. The second came from the current Spurs boss leading Yokohama to the 2019 J-League title in thrilling style. Upon his departure to Scotland two years later, Big Ange recommended Big Kevin Muscat. When this second Australian carried on the good work, winning the 2022 championship before leaving last December, the Kanagawa club made it three in a row from down under and appointed Kewell. And here he is, winning games in Asia, taking the five-time Japanese champions to a first final, and making a name for himself with his aggressive, attacking football.

A win is not just a gamechanger for the career trajectories of the two coaches but for the clubs too. The Asian title grants entry to the expanded 2025 Fifa Club World Cup in the United States and a reported potential windfall of up to $50m. Such an amount would be gratefully accepted by the big-spending Saudi Arabian clubs. Al-Hilal, with a record number of four Asian championships, were favoured to make it five, but their world-record winning streak of 36 was ended by Al-Ain in the semi-finals. Crespo’s men also saw off Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr in the round before. Saudi Arabia should, however, have a better chance of winning next season.

The rebranded and revamped AFC Champions League Elite promises more money and fewer teams. It was also announced by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) late last year that, from the quarter-final stage, all the games will take place in Saudi Arabia. “The [Saudi Arabian Football Federation] was selected as the eventual host after evaluating the infrastructure and accommodation requirements, as well as all other key operational aspects needed to stage a tournament befitting the prestige and stature of the continent’s newly revamped premier club competition,” the AFC said, adding that the arrangement is in place for two years and, subject to a successful review, another three.

The development has largely gone unremarked upon, perhaps not surprising in an age when many of the big tournaments are held in the west of the continent almost as a matter of course. The Asian Cup was held in the UAE in 2019, then Qatar and in 2027 will take place in Saudi Arabia. The U-23 Asian Cup has just been held in Qatar. There is disquiet among the powers of the east who have seen influence drift away from Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo towards Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi but in terms of financial promises and guarantees, there is no competition.

It also means the end of two-legged finals. For the sake of atmosphere it is to be hoped that a Saudi Arabian team does go all the way, otherwise there is a real possibility of the continent’s biggest club trophy being presented in front of a half-empty, at best, stadium. Asia has never done neutral venue club finals well. That means this Saturday, a capacity crowd at Al-Ain is to be savoured. It will be an unforgettable night for one of the teams, the end of an era in Asian club football and the next step on two fascinating coaching journeys.