Three takeaways: Rampant Al Ain crowned continental champions

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Al Ain won the AFC Champions League for the second time in its history on Saturday night as an emphatic 5-1 victory at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium secured a 6-3 aggregate triumph over Yokohama F. Marinos. The Japanese club won the first leg 2-1 but a rampant Al Ain side overturned that deficit with an outstanding display in front of its own fans in the UAE.

Braces from forwards Soufiane Rahimi and Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, plus a Kaku penalty, saw Hernan Crespo’s side blow away Yokohama F. Marinos, which played the entire second-half with 10 men after goalkeeper William Popp was sent off on the stroke of half-time.

It was the joint-highest scoring final in the history of the AFC Champions League, equaling Al Ittihad’s 6-3 two-legged win over South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in 2004. The result handed Al Ain its first AFC Champions League title since 2003.

Here, Al Arabiya English selects three key takeaways from Al Ain’s continental coronation.

Ruthless Rahimi the difference again

No player has made a bigger impression on the AFC Champions League this season than Al Ain forward Soufiane Rahimi. Finishing as the tournament’s top scorer with 13 goals, he was also named the competition’s MVP - a fitting reward for a string of match-winning performances. In the knockout rounds, in particular, Rahimi’s ruthlessness in front of goal has helped Al Ain advance. Beginning with the dramatic 92nd-minute winner in the last-16 second leg against Nasaf, the Moroccan forward has netted eight goals in seven games.

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Two more came in the final as once again - aptly, given his searing pace - Rahimi was fast out of the blocks with an eighth-minute opening goal. It has been a common theme in the latter stages of the tournament, with the Al Ain forward netting first-half goals in both legs of the quarter-final against Al Nassr, and scoring in the sixth minute of the 4-2 semi-final victory over Al Hilal at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

Against Yokohama F. Marinos, Rahimi showed a trademark turn of pace to sprint clear of the Japanese team’s backline, before playing a delightful one-two with Emirati midfielder Yahia Nader and calmly slotting past William Popp. Rahimi then once more beat the Yokohama offside trap before being hauled down by defender Shonnosuke Hatanaka; Kaku held his nerve to roll home the resulting penalty.

Yan Matheus levelled up the aggregate scores at 3-3 before half-time but goalkeeper Popp’s red card changed the course of the match. Unsurprisingly, Rahimi was the man responsible; the Moroccan accelerated past Popp and drew the foul that in turn drew the referee’s ire. Determined to well and truly ruin Yokohama’s night, Rahimi then took Al Ain ahead in the tie for the first time. He smartly cut in from the right before driving a deflected left-foot shot past substitute goalkeeper Fuma Shirasaka. Fellow forward Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba scored two late goals but the damage had already been done by the remarkable Rahimi. Al Ain’s biggest challenge may now be to hold on to their in-demand No. 21.

Can Crespo be kept?

There are few better ways for a football coach to improve their reputation than steering a side to continental glory and Crespo’s success will certainly not have gone unnoticed. Like his star man Rahimi, Crespo is likely to be a man in demand after winning the AFC Champions League; Al Ain needs to do everything in its power to convince the Argentine coach to stay.

Among the fascinating chapters of Crespo’s hugely successful playing career was a match-winning brace for River Plate in the final of the 1996 Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competitions. Nine years later, as one of the world’s most feared strikers, he scored in the UEFA Champions League final for AC Milan but was ultimately denied by an iconic comeback from Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool.

This time, Crespo was the coach engineering the fight back; the Argentine picked his players up after losing the first leg in Japan and inspired them to deliver one of the most entertaining finals in Asian club football history. For a man who made his name as a prolific goalscorer, it is no surprise that Al Ain has been so irrepressible in attack this season.

“It is very difficult to describe,” said Crespo, who previously suffered an AFC Champions League semi-final defeat with Qatari club Al Duhail in 2022. “We are very proud with this title because we represented not only the club but also the country. We deserve the title. Every time, we were underdogs - in the quarter-finals, semi-finals - but I believed and every time, the players did it.”

With former club Milan looking for a new coach this summer, Crespo’s name has unsurprisingly been mentioned and Al Ain’s triumph may well have moved him a couple of notches up the Rossoneri’s shortlist. Saudi Pro League clubs are also likely to show an interest in Crespo but the Argentine was keen to ensure the focus was on his Al Ain players after the final.

“I told the players they had to believe that we have the talent to play football. I asked them to trust themselves and translate what we had done in training into the game,” Crespo added.

“We understood what we had to do when we had the ball. I am not a genius, what is most important is the players. They played with great heart. We needed to have the personality to do it and the players did it. I am so proud to have won the AFC Champions League.”

Al Ain bookends AFC Champions League

Not only did victory over Yokohama secure Al Ain its second continental title, the result ensured the UAE giant will be back next season to compete in the AFC Champions League Elite (ACLE), Asian football’s new top-tier competition. With Al Ain too far behind current UAE Pro League leaders Al Wasl and second-placed Shabab Al Ahli, defeat in this season’s final would have meant Al Ain failed to make it into the first installment of Asia’s new premier tournament.

However, as reigning Asian champions, Crespo’s side goes straight into the ACLE group stage along with whichever team emerges as Emirati champions; the UAE Pro League runners-up will get a spot in the ACLE play-off round. As the UAE’s most successful ever club - with 14 domestic league titles, seven President’s Cups and two AFC Champions Leagues - it is fitting that Al Ain will be involved in the inaugural ACLE. If Al Ain manages to retain its continental crown and claim a maiden ACLE triumph next season, it would be the first club to achieve back-to-back Asian titles since Al Ittihad did so in 2005.

Victory also means that Al Ain has bookended the AFC Champions League era, winning the first and last editions of the competition. In 2003, it claimed the maiden AFC Champions League title after its rebrand from the Asian Club Championship - beating Thai club BEC Tero Sasana in the final. On Saturday, Al Ain completed a pleasing bit of football symmetry to win the last ever AFC Champions League 21 years later.

Al Ain should, arguably, have had more success in the tournament. There have been three final defeats, including a 2005 reverse to Al Ittihad - plus successive losses to Guangzhou Evergrande and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the 2015 and 2016 showpieces respectively.

Still, its relationship with the AFC Champions League ended on a high note. Saturday night’s silverware was particularly special for veteran Emirati goalkeeper Khalid Eisa and UAE midfielder Ahmed Barman; both featured in the 2016 defeat and both were on the pitch to celebrate as Al Ain beat Yokohama.

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