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Al Ain beat Yokohama F Marinos 5-1 to win Asian Champions League title

Al Ain beat Yokohama F Marinos 5-1 to win Asian Champions League title
25 May 2024 22:27


Al Ain scripted a rosy end in the final of the Asian Champions League to emerge victorious against 10-man Yokohama F-Marinos at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in the Garden City of the UAE. The hosts of the two-leg final smashed all doubts in overturning a 2-1 deficit with a smashing 5-1 result against their rivals from Japan.

The Asian Champions League is changing format since inception after 21 years with Al Hilal going down as most successful with four titles, but Al Ain will go down uniquely as the team to win the first and last for its two titles. The inaugural winners in 2003 finished runners-up in 2005 and 2016.

Leading goalscorer of the tournament, Soufiane Rahimi was the star of the show again with two goals beyond terrorising the opposition. Alejandro Romero or “Kaku” converted a penalty but missed one and then substitute Kodjo Laba got two at the end to settle the issue after Yokohama had their goalkeeper William Popp sent off in the 33rd minute.

From the outset, as expected, Yokohama tried to steal every second possible to waste, and it required the persistence of Rahimi to strive that much harder to force things. With the other attacking threat Laba on the bench, every extra mile counted. 

And Al Ain were rewarded in the eighth minute when Rahimi latched onto a ball from the left of the box, played it on to Yahya Nader whose back heel saw Rahimi tap it in with a great moment of understanding. But Rahimi’s dramatics influenced the referee so much that the second goal for Al Ain came amid a bit of drama. 

Going for a 50:50 ball at the top right edge of the box, Rahimi went down quickly on a slight interference and Uzbekistan’s Ilgiz Tantashev promptly gave him the yellow card in the 33rd minute. He was persuaded to refer to the VAR technology for a second opinion, and much against the fear of a bias persisting, the referee course corrected and pointed to the spot which Kaku converted.

From a deficit of one goal, Al Ain went one up but the joy was shortlived for eight minutes with centre-back Kouame Kouadio showing a lazy turn of foot. Van Matheus snatched the ball from him, ran down the right flank and slotted it past Khalid Eisa in the far corner.

The eventful half had one more chapter of drama left. With 10 minutes of extra time added, Rahimi got a well-timed through ball down the centre and was brought down by Popp just out of the box. Given Rahimi’s reprieve, the Japanese camp also hoped for VAR intervention, but to no avail. However, the 10-men rivals got a slice of luck when Kaku missed the second penalty, his left-foot strike sailing over.

The teams 3-3 on aggregate at half time and Yokohama digging deep with 10 men, the teams played with all to play for, Al Ain building up threats but none materialising. A Yokohama defender nearly got an own goal when it hit the cross bar and that followed with two substitutions for them. Hernan Crespo decided to turn on the screw then with the attacking Laba coming in place of defender Saeed Juma. 

The impetus it provided and with the defence splitting up, it was Rahimi who put Al Ain in the front again piercing through from a tight angle in the 67th minute. 

As the match edged to its final stages with Yokohama fans hoping against hope, one last round of poetic justice was left – one that fetched two goals for the man who could not play a part in the crucial knockout wins in quarter-finals and semis, Laba.

Fortune intervened, admittedly, as a stray ball headed to the substitute goalkeeper Fuma Shirasaka went horribly wrong for the later. He overstepped over the harmless ball and Laba remained in the hunt to tap it in. The emotions between him and Rahimi showed how much it meant to them. And then, four minutes later, Laba got to show his sleek footwork to come up with a brilliant fifth goal for Al Ain that sealed the issue. 

He had the goal to his mercy but passed it out to Kaku, who found Laba again and he got a great reflex goal with just turning his heel in the 95th minute.

There was enough time left though for Anderson Lopes, Yokohama’s at-large striker, to get past Eisa. The ball struck Eisa’s shoulder and bounced towards the goal but substitute Ahmed Barman got a goalline save to keep the final scoreline at 5-1.

Al Ain were trailing 1-2 after Yokohama rallied in their home leg on May 11 in Japan, but that did not stop the organisers rolling out the red carpet and putting up an entertainment segment to regale the audience. And the turnaround was just the result the home fans wanted.

The 25,000-capacity stadium was packed to the brim with only a few seats going empty in the area reserved for the fans from the distant land of the rising sun. The wives of Brazilian players of Yokohama, including the frontman Elber, were spotted at the entrance with the Brazil flag, which the rules did not permit. It was not a good day for the player too, having been sacrificed for Shirasaka.

  • Cars decked up with stickers to show support for Al Ain were seen a lot in the hours leading up to the match
    Cars decked up with stickers to show support for Al Ain were seen a lot in the hours leading up to the match
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