Crespo and Kewell meet again for chance of continental glory

Harry Kewell and John Arne Riise celebrate after Liverpool win the 2005 Champions League

Hernan Crespo and Harry Kewell had very different experiences in the final of the 2005 Champions League when Liverpool came back from 3-0 down against AC Milan to win a penalty shootout in Istanbul.

The Argentine striker scored twice for the Italians but ended up losing while the Australian winger trudged off with a groin injury midway through the first half only to collect a winner’s medal.

On Saturday, they are again on opposing sides in a continental final, this time as head coaches and their journeys to get here have also been very different.

Crespo is in charge of United Arab Emirates powerhouse Al Ain, who meet Japan’s Yokohama F.Marinos, led by Kewell, in the first leg of the Asian Champions League on Saturday.

The action will take place at Nissan Stadium, the venue for the 2002 World Cup final, and then moves to the oasis city of Al Ain, on the border with Oman, two weeks later.

That Crespo is just 180 minutes away from a continental title – which he never managed as a player with 2005 as close as he came – and a place in the expanded Fifa Club World Cup in 2025 is perhaps less surprising than his opposite number.

After the former Chelsea striker, who starred for both Milan clubs, hung up his shooting boots in 2012, he had coaching success in Brazil and Argentina.

Then followed a 2022 move to Qatar where the 48-year-old delivered a league title to Al-Duhail but lost in the semi-final of last year’s Champions League, 7-0 against Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia.

Hernan Crespo celebrates with Al-Duhail
In his first season as Al-Duhail boss, Hernan Crespo won the treble of the league, Qatar Cup and Qatari Stars Cup [Getty Images]

Crespo then moved to Al Ain and got his revenge, knocking out Al-Hilal, the most successful team in Asian history with four titles, at the same last-four stage in April.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr team were eliminated in the previous round.

Morocco’s Soufiane Rahimi took the headlines with five goals against the two Saudi giants.

“We talk so much about the two teams we eliminated because we were underdogs in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, and we go through,” Crespo said.

“We always need to say thank you to the players, congratulations to the players. They believe, they work hard, they fight, and they deserve to go through. There are great people working very hard in Al Ain and they deserve this moment. I’m very happy to be part of it.”

The UAE team won the 2003 final but have lost their past two final appearances: in 2005 to Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia and then, in 2016, to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Motors.

Yokohama however, have never been here before despite winning the J.League title five times. It means that Kewell, who has been in the job less than six months, is on the brink of history.

The former Leeds and Liverpool winger’s coaching career had also looked to be a thing of the past. It started in 2017 at League Two’s Crawley Town which he left just over a year later to take over at Notts County.

That’s when it started to go wrong. Kewell, who came on as a second-half substitute as Liverpool lost the 2007 final 2-1 to Milan, was fired after 11 league games.

At Oldham Athletic there were seven months and then just seven games in charge of Barnet before the club, in England’s fifth tier, handed the 45-year-old his marching orders in September 2021.

Enter Ange Postecoglou. In June 2022 the then-Celtic boss gave his fellow Australian the job of first-team coach at the Scottish giants.

Postecoglou arrived in Glasgow after leading Yokohama to the 2019 Japanese title and, as he left Japan in 2021, the now Tottenham Hotspur boss recommended Kevin Muscat as his successor.

Muscat, a tough-tackling former Australian international defender who played for Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Rangers and Millwall, continued the good work at the Kanagawa club, winning the title in 2022.

Muscat’s last game in charge in December – he headed to China to take over Shanghai Port – was to win the Champions League group stage with Yokohama to give his successor a run at the knockout rounds. On New Year’s Eve, Kewell became the third successive Australian to take the reins and has tried to maintain the attacking and expansive football that was the hallmark of his predecessors.

Kevin Muscat and Harry Kewell
Kevin Muscat, background, was a playing assistant manager at Australian side Melbourne Victory when Harry Kewell, foreground, was playing for them in 2011-12 [Getty Images]

Neither Postecoglou or Muscat got past the last 16 in Asia but Kewell managed to take Yokohama, part of the City Football Group stable, to the last four.

A 1-0 loss in the first leg against two-time winners Ulsan HD, led by Hong Myung-bo, the captain of South Korea’s 2002 World Cup semi-finalists, left the Marinos with much to do at home.

Before the second leg, Kewell evoked the spirit of Istanbul.

"I was part of a special team that night that was able to come back from a scenario where a lot of people thought it was dead and buried," he said.

“It just goes to show that a game is never finished, especially when you've got a hunger and a desire in a team. And I see that hunger and desire in this team to go out there and do something magical."

It worked, as Yokohama won a penalty shootout after a tense and close affair.

If the Asian Champions League final is as dramatic and exciting as the 2005 European affair then everyone will be in for a treat.

Whatever happens, it is likely that the coaching career of either Crespo and Kewell – who have taken very different paths to get here – will never be the same again.