Asia AFC Champions League

Marinos Edge Out Al Ain in ACL Final First Leg

Kouta Watanabe struck six minutes from time to lead Yokohama F Marinos to a 2-1 comeback victory over Al Ain in the first leg of the 2023/24 AFC Champions League final on May 11, ensuring the J.League 1 side will carry a narrow advantage into the second leg in the United Arab Emirates in two weeks.

Watanabe scored from close range after teammate Asahi Uenaka had earlier equalized Mohammed Abbas’ 12th-minute opener at the Nissan Stadium, as the Japanese club seeks their first-ever AFC Champions League title against the 2002-03 champions.

The teams will reconvene at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on May 25, with the winners securing Asia’s fourth and final spot at the newly expanded FIFA Club World Cup in the United States next year with Yokohama’s compatriots in Urawa Red Diamonds, Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal, and Ulsan HD of South Korea already confirming their spots earlier.

Harry Kewell’s side dominated possession throughout but had to contend with the counterattacking prowess of an Al Ain team that had previously eliminated Saudi Pro League giants Al Nassr and Al Hilal – denying Cristiano Ronaldo at the former and Neymar at the latter their first taste of Asian glory.

Brazilian Elber posed the initial threat for Marinos, firing high and wide with an early effort after cutting in from the left. He was also central to a slick sixth-minute move that ended with Yan Matheus’ rising shot narrowly clearing the crossbar. However, Al Ain struck first in the 12th minute when Soufiane Rahimi beat Carlos Eduardo, and while his shot was saved by William Popp, Abbas slotted in the rebound without hesitation.

Anderson Lopes began to make his presence felt, forcing Eisa into action in the 19th minute and later outmuscling Park Yong-woo to shoot over the bar from the edge of the penalty area. The home side continued to push, with Eisa making a full-stretch save to his right to deny Uenaka’s drive, and Elber sending the ball across an open goal.

Al Ain almost doubled their lead after a promising break on the half-hour mark when Mathias Palacios’ shot slipped past Popp, but the goal was ruled out for offside after a VAR review.

While Al Ain looked to counter, the hosts pressed for an equalizer, with Eisa increasingly busy. He saved Takuya Kida’s low effort, which looped up to clip the crossbar and bounce over for a corner.

A second half of few chances came alive with 18 minutes remaining when Marinos pulled level. Matheus moved into the penalty area from the right and delivered a curling left-foot cross that found Uenaka unmarked 10 yards from goal, and his header easily beat Eisa.

With six minutes remaining, Marinos took the lead as Watanabe slotted in after Ryo Miyaichi redirected Matheus’ cross into his path. Initially ruled offside, the VAR review overturned the decision, allowing the Japanese side to take an advantage to the UAE.