Hernán Crespo exacts revenge on Al Hilal as Al Ain reach AFC Champions League final

Al Ain are through to the 2023-24 AFC Champions League decider after Hernán Crespo masterminded an impressive 5-4 aggregate victory in the semifinals over tournament favourites Al Hilal. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

Last February, with Al Hilal looming ominous in their charge towards what would end in a record-extending fourth AFC Champions League title, one team looked a legitimate chance to stop them in the semifinals.

Al Duhail, who had racked up five wins and 17 goals in the group stage and then saw Al Rayyan and Al Shabab in the previous stages of the knockout round, seemed a match for Al Hilal.

It proved anything but as Al Hilal produced a stunning performance to inflict a humbling 7-0 defeat on their Qatari opponents and their shellshocked coach Hernán Crespo.

Crespo will not have fond memories of that ill-fated evening in Doha and -- having taken over at United Arab Emirates' Al Ain since leaving Al Duhail in October -- he might have been forgiven for feeling a sense of unease after his new team's impressive run in this year's ACL saw him once again pitted against Al Hilal in the semis.

An Al Hilal outfit that has only gotten stronger this season following the huge government-backed investment in four of the Saudi Pro League's powerhouses.

While the previous Al Hilal iteration which Crespo had to deal with was already formidable enough with the likes of Odion Ighalo, Moussa Marega and André Carrillo to call upon, the current team boasts genuine world-class names -- at the peak of their powers no less -- in the form of Aleksandar Mitrović, Rúben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly and Sergej Milinković-Savić, even if the biggest star of all in Neymar is missing through injury.

But, with a stunning display in last week's first leg, Al Ain turned the tie on its head by claiming a shock 4-2 win after racing to a three-goal lead inside the opening 38 minutes.

The situation would have been even more dire for Al Hilal had they not pulled a second goal back late on.

Yet, it would prove a bridge too far for Al Hilal as Al Ain did enough with a 2-1 loss in Tuesday's return encounter to seal a 5-4 aggregate triumph and a place in next month's final.

Especially after the humbling 7-0 loss with Al Duhail, this result went some way in providing redemption for Crespo, the former Argentina star striker who has quietly gone about establishing his managerial career in South America and now Asia.

Leading Defensa y Justicia to a maiden continental title in the Copa Sudamericana in 2020 was followed with a state league triumph in Brazil with São Paulo, while he also led Al Duhail to the treble of the Qatar Stars League, Qatar Cup and Qatari Stars Cup.

Still, Crespo could just better all those achievements should he be able to take Al Ain one step further and win the ACL.

After all, while Al Ain have been crowned champions of Asia previously in 2003, they have not enjoyed the best of times on the continental stage recently.

They failed to make it out of the group stage in their previous two appearances, while missing out on the competition proper completely in the past two editions.

It has not been just Al Ain but all of Emirati football that has struggled of late, as the West Asia Zone of the ACL has found itself dominated by teams from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar in the last few years.

Prior to this campaign, no team from United Arab Emirates managed to make it further than the quarterfinals since Al Ain themselves last reached the last four in 2016.

Now, they can lay claim to once again being the best of the West.

And if Crespo can continue to get the best out his charges, a run that has already seen them oust two giants -- having also accounted for another Saudi Pro League powerhouse in Al Nassr back in the quarterfinals -- could just culminate in Al Ain becoming kings of Asia once again for the first time in over two decades.