AFC Champions League final: Can Al Ain end its 21-year wait for Asia?

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The 2023-24 AFC Champions League began with last August’s preliminary rounds and, after nine months of fierce competition, reaches its climax on Saturday night as the UAE’s most successful club Al Ain takes on Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos in the first leg of the continental final.

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Kickoff is at 2 p.m. GST on Saturday as Al Ain travels to Yokohama for the final’s opening gambit, before the return leg back in the UAE two weeks later – when this season’s Asian club champion will be crowned. Here, Al Arabiya English previews the AFC Champions League final showdown.

The context

Although Al Wasl looks set to become the UAE Pro League champion for an eighth time this season, it is 14-time winner Al Ain that stands head and shoulders above its rivals in terms of football achievement in the Emirates. The club, nicknamed The Boss, is used to running the show domestically, but in Asian competition has historically underperformed.

It has just one AFC Champions League trophy to its name, won back in 2003 when Emirati forward Farhad-Majidi, on loan from Al Wasl at the time, scored two goals at the old Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium to help beat Thai team BEC Tero Sasana. It was the first – and thus far, only – time that a club from the UAE has won the AFC Champions League.

Al Ain has lost two finals since – to Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad in 2005 and South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2016. Veteran Emirati goalkeeper Khalid Eisa played in that 2016 final and will be between the posts again for Al Ain on Saturday, while midfielder Ahmed Barman is the only other winner from eight years ago still in the Al Ain squad.

Al Ain cruised through its initial AFC Champions League group with five wins from six matches but its path through the knockout stages has been significantly more dramatic. With almost the last kick of the two-legged last-16 clash with Uzbek club Nasaf, Moroccan forward Soufiane Rahimi scored to send his side through.

Rahimi was at it again in the quarter-final, netting three goals across the contest with Al Nassr and converting his penalty as Al Ain won the second-leg shootout. Previously invincible Al Hilal was then eliminated in the semi-finals – Rahimi’s hat-trick in the 4-2 first-leg win propelling Al Ain through despite a 2-1 loss in the second leg in Riyadh.

Rahimi has been the star turn this season, but he has been assisted in attack by Paraguayan playmaker Kaku and Togo forward Kodjo Fo Doh Laba, who has scored 18 goals in 28 games. Al Ain’s full-backs have also been a useful attacking outlet with Erik on the left and Bandar Mohamed on the right contributing 11 and six assists respectively. Al Ain also has several UAE national team players in its ranks, including defender Khalid Al-Hashemi, and midfielders Yahia Nader and Mohammed Abbas.

While Al Ain is a continental veteran playing in its 17th AFC Champions League campaign, Yokohama F. Marinos is a less experienced club at this level. Although it won the now defunct Asian Cup Winners’ Cup back in 1992 with a victory over Al Nassr, this is only the sixth time Yokohama has competed in the AFC Champions League.

It had never previously been past the round of 16, losing to Vissel Kobe in 2022 and Suwon Samsung Bluewings in 2020 at that stage. This season, however, the seven-time Japanese champion has plotted an impressive path to the final. It topped a thrilling Group G, pipping China’s Shandong Taishan and South Korea’s Incheon United on head-to-head goal difference alone after all three sides finished on 12 points.

In the last-16, it only progressed against Bangkok United thanks to an Anderson Lopes penalty in the 122nd-minute of the second leg, though the quarter-final was more straightforward as Shandong Taishan was dispatched home and away. A tense semi-final against two-time continental champion Ulsan Hyundai of South Korea went all the way to penalties - Yokohama narrowly emerging as 5-4 shootout victors.

Yokohama has relied on the goals of Anderson Lopes and the team has a strong Brazilian core with midfielder Yan Mattheus often providing the creative spark, while center-back Eduardo and winger Elber are also regular starters. Elsewhere, defender Shinnosuke Hatanaka has several national team appearances for Japan under his belt and midfielder Ryo Miaichi played in the Premier League with Arsenal and Bolton.

Finals tend to be cagey affairs and it is 18 matches and 11 years since more than three goals were scored in an AFC Champions League showpiece; FC Seoul and eventual winners Guangzhou Evergrande shared a 2-2 draw in the first leg of their final in 2013.

However, both of the 2024 finalists’ campaigns have been characterized by high drama, late goals and plenty of attacking flair. With Yokohama chasing its first ever AFC Champions League title and Al Ain targeting a long-awaited second, fans and neutrals alike are optimistic about seeing an entertaining final.

The coaches

Al Ain and Yokohama F. Marinos’ coaches met as players in one of the most memorable UEFA Champions League finals ever seen. Back in 2005, Hernan Crespo scored twice to give his AC Milan side a 3-0 half-time lead against Harry Kewell’s Liverpool. The Reds, however, produced one of football’s greatest ever fightbacks to draw 3-3, before winning on penalties. Neither Kewell nor Crespo took part in the shootout as both had been substituted in normal time, but both men will be unavoidably front and center on Saturday - trying to inspire their respective sides in a continental final 19 years on.

For Kewell, arguably the most gifted footballer Australia has ever produced, it is a ‘pinch yourself’ moment in his coaching career. Three years ago he was managing non-league English team Barnet; now he has a shot at Asia’s biggest club football prize. Kewell, an AFC Asian Cup runner-up with the Socceroos in 2011, has shown impressive poise and tactical acumen since joining Yokohama FC, a club that took somewhat of a punt on the former Liverpool and Leeds United winger given his coaching CV was a little underwhelming before moving to Japan.

While Crespo surprisingly never won the UEFA Champions League during a glittering playing career with the likes of Milan, Internazionale and Chelsea, the striker did taste continental glory with first club River Plate, scoring two goals in the final as the Argentine giant beat Colombia’s América de Cali to lift the 1996 Copa Libertadores. As a coach, he has won South America’s second-best prize - the Copa Sudamericana, delivering an unlikely triumph and first ever major trophy to Buenos Aires outfit Defensa y Justicia.

The key battle: Soufiane Rahimi vs Anderson Lopes

The two forwards have been their respective sides’ main source of goals in the AFC Champions League this season and the final may well be decided by whichever one of them can land the knockout blow. Moroccan Soufiane Rahimi has been in irresistible scoring form in Asia for Al Ain with 11 goals in 11 games; his 20 goals across all competitions has made this the most prolific season of Rahimi's career so far.

Significantly, Rahimi has consistently delivered when the pressure has been on in the AFC Champions League knockout rounds. His first-half hat-trick in the semi-final against Al Hilal demonstrated all of his best qualities; Rahimi operates best on the left of an attacking trio, exploiting the space in behind defenses with his pace and cool head in front of goal.

Yokohama’s Anderson Lopes is a different kind of player - a powerful striker who plays down the middle and disrupts defenders with his physicality on the ball. Capable of scoring with both feet and also very good in the air, Lopes had a quiet group stage but has burst into life in the knockout rounds, netting in four of Yokohama's six matches. The highlight of those was a spectacular volley in the quarter-final second leg against Shandong.

The Brazilian forward who has played in Asia for eight years, was the J.League Top Scorer in 2023 and like Rahimi, has often scored when it mattered most in this season’s AFC Champions League. His stoppage-time penalty to win Yokohama’s last-16 tie was utterly nerveless, and he also successfully converted from the spot in the semi-final shootout win against Ulsan.

The prediction

Both teams have scored freely this season and will hopefully continue that trend to provide a real spectacle across the final’s two games. It feels evenly poised but if Al Ain striker Rahimi can show the sort of ruthlessness in goal he has managed so far this season, the Emirati side should edge it and claim a second AFC Champions League title.

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