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AFC Champions League

Al Ain claim second AFC Champions League title

Published at :May 26, 2024 at 2:26 PM
Modified at :May 26, 2024 at 2:26 PM
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Khel Now

Al Ain scripted a dramatic comeback in the second leg of the AFC Champions League finale.

Doubles from Soufiane Rahimi and Kodjo Laba drove United Arab Emirates’ Al Ain FC to win the AFC Champions League 2023/24 title following a 5-1 victory over Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos in the second leg of the final at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Saturday.

The J1 League side had won the first leg 2-1 in Yokohama, but a scintillating second-half performance from Al Ain meant the inaugural winners of the AFC Champions League in 2002-03 become also the last team to win it under the current format before the launch of the AFC Champions League Elite next year.

Following their continental triumph, Al Ain become Asia’s fourth representatives at the FIFA Club World Cup 2025, joining Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal SFC, Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds and Korea Republic’s Ulsan HD at the US tournament next year.

Already holding a one-goal advantage from the home tie two weeks earlier, the Japanese side came racing out of the blocks trying to add another that could ease the task in front of a packed Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

Anderson Lopes tested goalkeeper Khaled Eisa within two minutes, but his shot from a tight angle was saved by the UAE international.

It was Al Ain who took the lead at the other end, doing so in style thanks to Rahimi’s strike in the eighth minute.

With seven knockout stage goals to his name already, the Moroccan showed his quality once again, picking the ball up on the left flank, cutting inside and feinting a shot but instead intelligently finding Yahia Nader who produced a moment of genius, sending a backheel pass that left goalkeeper William Popp in no man’s land and allowing Rahimi to slot home into the empty net for the opener.

Rahimi’s pace continued to be a nuisance for the Marinos defence; the Moroccan was too quick for Shinnosuke Hatanaka, beating the Japanese centre-back to the ball and forcing him to commit a foul inside the box, which translated into a penalty kick following a VAR check. Paraguayan playmaker Alejandro Romero (Kaku) stepped up and slotted home his side’s second.

Al Ain continued to rely on counter attacks and could have been 3-0 on the night seven minutes before the break when Rahimi pushed forward down the wing, beating his markers, but with just the goalkeeper to beat from a narrow angle, the winger’s left-footed finish hit the side netting instead.

The visitors equalised the aggregate score in the 40th minute, as Yan Matheus capitalised on a mistake from Kouame Kouadio to snatch the ball, cut into his left foot and aimed for the bottom far corner where Eisa’s fingertips were unable to stop it nestling into the back of the net to make it 2-1 on the night.

There was still room for more drama before the break as Marinos were reduced to 10 men following a red card to goalkeeper Popp.

Once more it was Rahimi causing trouble; he broke free down the middle at full speed, rounding the goalkeeper who made contact to bring him just outside the penalty box, receiving his marching orders in the process.

Al Ain piled up the pressure after the restart, with head coach Hernan Crespo introducing striker Laba for full-back Saeed Jumaa.

The hosts were rewarded for their attacking endeavors with a third goal midway through the second half, and once more it was Rahimi delivering the goods, while it was Laba who was the focal point of the attack, starting the move which saw defender Eduardo clear the ball, but only as far as Rahimi who controlled it expertly, moving it to his left foot and hammering home for Al Ain’s third.

It was the 27-year-old’s 13th goal of the campaign, matching the record for most goals in a single AFC Champions League season, shared by Guangzhou FC’s Muriqui (2013), FC Seoul’s Adriano (2016) and Al Sadd’s Baghdad Bounedjah (2018).

With 10 minutes of added time given, substitute Laba cemented the win with a fourth goal. Goalkeeper Fuma Shirasaka, who himself had come in the place of Elber following the dismissal of Popp in the first half, committed a horror mistake, missing his attempt to clear Rahimi’s through pass, allowing the Togolese forward to finish comfortably into the empty net for his seventh goal of the campaign, having last scored in the round of 16.

Deep into added time, Laba added his second of the night and his team’s fifth. The 32-year-old fed Kaku down the left and the Paraguayan sent a low effort that looked set for a comfortable Shirasaka save, but the slightest of touches from Laba changed the direction of the ball into the back of the net to seal a 6-3 aggregate victory for the Emiratis.

The emphatic triumph made up for Al Ain’s final defeats to Al Ittihad in 2005 and to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016.

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