The ex-Premier League stars chasing Champions League glory…as bosses

The ex-Premier League stars chasing Champions League bosses

All eyes will be on potential Premier League stars of the future when the Champions League final takes place – in Europe, anyway, when Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham go head-to-head at Wembley: one who could yet impress in England’s top flight despite a poor start, and one who has yet to taste the top flight of his home nation at all.

But far earlier than that game and far further east, another final by the same name sees two of yesteryear’s stars go head-to-head in the dugout – in the Asian Champions League.

Harry Kewell and Hernan Crespo are the pair ready to lead their teams out in search of success and silverware, the former in charge of Japense outfit Yokohama F. Marinos and the latter head coach at UAE side Al Ain.

They meet in a two-legged Asian Football Confederation (AFC) final, the first game on Saturday and the return two weeks later on 25 May.

And the improbable meeting is all the more curious given neither of them have been in the job for six months yet.

It’s almost two decades since these two managers came together, came up against each other, as players in another Champions League final – that time in Europe. The unforgettably contrarian nature of that 2005 encounter meant that one had a great game but a terrible time, while the other had a nightmarish outing but ended up celebrating.

Kewell started in attack for Liverpool but wound up departing the Istanbul pitch injured during the first half; Crespo scored twice in that same 45 minutes for AC Milan – but was left to watch on in horror as the collapse at the other end and ensuing penalty shootout meant it was the Australian who wore a winner’s medal hours later.

Crespo scored twice in Istanbul before AC Milan lost on penalties (Getty Images)
Crespo is now head coach at Al Ain (AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s amazing the situation, we will face him in another Champions League final,” said the Argentinian ahead of the reunion.

“I always face him in great events. It was a very difficult night for me, but it’s like this. We face each other again and it’s a pleasure to meet him again after a long time also because we will face each other in another situation, no more as a football player but as coaches.

“Life keeps going and we try to reinvent our lives and we are here again to be competitive like when we were young.”

Being competitive comes as standard for the former River Plate, Parma and Inter Milan striker. As a player he won the Uefa Cup and a handful of league titles, including the Premier League with Chelsea. As a manager he has already claimed a regional league title in Brazil, a continental title with Argentinian side Defensa y Justicia and a treble of sorts in Qatar. Now he’s seeking his biggest trophy yet with his new outfit, having only joined the Emirati club in mid November.

Crespo’s rise as a manager has been ongoing across more than a decade, with all his trophies coming in the past five years. But how quickly he has reached this final is nothing compared to the turbocharged trajectory his opposite number has had, after a far more unassuming start to life as a head coach.

Kewell has gone from Barnet to a continental cup final in successive jobs (AFP via Getty Images)
Kewell lifts the European Cup after Liverpool beat AC Milan in 2005 (Getty Images)

Prior to landing in Japan, Kewell had been in charge of Crawley, Notts County, Oldham and Barnet in England’s lower leagues – none for more than 57 games and only two of his five clubs so far yielding more than 20 matches in charge. Presumably Marinos will become the third, given the second leg will be his 21st game in the dugout, having been appointed on new year’s eve.

It’s fresh territory for the former Leeds United and Socceroos star, in every way: the level of the match, the success it could lead to, even the fact it’s not a one-off final.

“You’re not going to be out of it from the first game. You’re always going to have a second chance,” Kewell said ahead of the first leg, via the AFC website.

“This is something that myself, my team, the fans and the club are all going to have to appreciate and understand.

“Whatever happens on May 11 is not going to determine everything. It’s going to put a marker down for the following game, so it’s something I’m not used to but I’m going to have to get used to it quickly.”

Kewell has a point which won’t be lost on Crespo either.

Which team settles into the occasion the quicker might well yield the eventual winner, but nobody knows better than these two managers – with their mixed experiences and juxtaposed outcomes from 19 years ago – that performances and even goals by the halfway stage could ultimately count for nothing.