Spirited fightback leaves Yokohama F. Marinos on the brink of historic AFC Champions League triumph

An 84th-minute effort by Kota Watanabe completed a come-from-behind 2-1 win for Yokohama F. Marinos over Al Ain in the first leg of the 2023-24 AFC Champions League final. YUICHI YAMAZAKI/AFP via Getty Images

In the last edition of Asian football's premier club competition in its current iteration, Yokohama F. Marinos -- one of the continent's most famous clubs -- are finally on the verge of winning the AFC Champions League for the first time.

And, in what has been a recurring theme throughout the campaign, they are insisting on doing things the hard way.

On Sunday evening, Marinos looked set to fall to a costly home loss to Al Ain in the first leg of the final as they trailed through Mohammed Abbas' 12th-minute opener -- only to score twice in the final 18 minutes to claim an important 2-1 win at Nissan Stadium.

Based on the balance of play, few would argue that they were not deserving of the victory and yet it again looked like the J1 League giants were doing all they could to squander a golden opportunity to become the 7th Japanese champions of Asia.

Even from the group stage, Marinos had to rely on a superior head-to-head record -- which went down to goal difference -- to progress following a three-way tie on 12 points with Shandong Taishan and Incheon United.

The round of 16 saw them require extra-time to beat Bangkok United 3-2 on aggregate in a tie they were the favourites in, before the quarterfinals was where they perhaps had the least of trouble as they prevailed in reunion with Shandong.

Come the semifinals, Harry Kewell's charges would race into a 3-0 lead inside the opening half-hour of the second leg against Ulsan HD -- having lost the opening encounter 1-0 -- but then allowed their opponents to level the aggregate score, even having to play over 80 minutes with a numerical deficit as Takumi Kamijima was sent off prior to the break before the game went into extra-time and then penalties.

Marinos would eventually prevail 5-4 in the shootout to set up a decider with Al Ain, who were no slouches themselves after stunning tournament favourites Al Hilal in the West Asia Zone semifinal.

Heading in Saturday's clash, Marinos were always expected to make the most of home advantage ahead of a daunting trip to the United Arab Emirates in a fortnight -- only for them to fall behind after 12 minutes when they were caught out by an opposition counterattack.

There appeared to be little danger when Al Ain pinged a hopeful ball forward but, through sheer pace and determination, Soufiane Rahimi would surge past a dumbfounded Eduardo and, while his initial effort was well saved by William Popp, Abbas was on hand to score on the rebound.

In fairness, Marinos had been the more enterprising of the two teams up till that point and they continued to create the better chances only for an equaliser to elude them through a combination of hesitant finishing and some heroics by Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Eisa.

Somehow, things looked to have gotten worse for the hosts on the half-hour mark when Popp, who had been otherwise excellent throughout the second half of the campaign, allowed a tame shot by Matias Palacios to squirm through his legs -- but VAR would come to their rescue by cancelling out a second Al Ain goal for offside.

Nonetheless, as the game progressed into second 45, Marinos were now fully on the charge yet, as chances continued to go begging, it did look as though they would once more leave themselves with a mountain to climb in the second leg.

But as he has proven in recent times, Asahi Uenaka's knack for popping up with important goals came to the fore in the 72nd minute as he ghosted into the six-yard box to meet Yan Matheus' inch-perfect cross with a glancing header into the bottom corner.

With the tie now purely one-way traffic as Al Ain looked increasingly content to take a draw back to the UAE, Marinos would strike again.

Yet another excellent delivery from the right by Yan Matheus was volleyed towards goal by Ryo Miyaichi and, while the strike probably would have been off target, Kota Watanabe was perfectly placed to divert the ball into the back of the net with his knee.

The offside flag halted the initial celebrations but VAR would again lend a helping hand as it proved that Palacios had played every opponent onside, ensuring Kewell's decision to introduce both Miyaichi and Watanabe on just after the hour would prove a masterstroke.

As the final whistle rang shortly after, there was elation in the Marinos camp -- but possibly also plenty of relief.

The job still is not completed and they will likely face a massive test at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on May 25.

Still, regardless of how they continue to do things the hard way, the fact remains that Marinos are now tantalisingly close to a historic ACL triumph.