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Al Ain players celebrate after the match after the Asian Champions League semi-final second leg against Al Hilal at Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, on Tuesday. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: Al Ain goalkeeper and captain Khalid Eisa has thanked the coach and the management for pursuing with him despite a poor run. Eisa was one of the star performers on the crucial evening when Al Ain reached the Asian Champions League final for the first time since 2016 with a aggregate victory over four-time winners Al Hilal, despite a 2-1 second-leg defeat in Riyadh on Tuesday.

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The 34-year-old made six saves including from Brazilian Michael and Mohamed Kanno late on. Al Ain clung on desperately through nine minutes of added time, with Eisa keeping out a Michael header in the 98th minute.

“I am glad to be playing well again, especially as we are now at the important stage of the season and I thank the confidence of the coach and the club management in me,” Eisa told the AFC website after the final. “To be honest, I rediscovered my form in the AFC Asian Cup. I had a bad period before that but I am back at my best now,” Eisa added.

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Al Ain's Matias Palacios and Yahia Nader celebrate after winning the match against Al Hilal on Tuesday. Image Credit: Reuters

The result means Al Ain will return to the final for the first time since 2016, when they lost out over two legs to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Motors. “The pressure was higher — mentally and physically — and I am so proud that we hung on. We played against a world class team and this match was even more difficult than the first game. So I’m proud of our team. We really deserve it,” Eisa said.

Leading 4-2 from the first leg in Al-Ain last Wednesday, the visitors were rocked inside the opening two minutes as Al Hilal, watched from the stands by their injured playmaker Neymar, made a blistering start. The Saudi Pro League side looked dominating at the Kingdom Arena with goals from Ruben Neves and Salem Al Dawsari.

The four-times winners reduced the deficit in the fourth minute as a rash challenge in the area saw Kouame Kouadio bring down Brazilian winger Michael and, after a VAR review, Neves smashed his spot-kick into the top corner.

But Al Ain remained resolute, with Kaku heading over the bar before the 2003 champions restored their two-goal aggregate advantage in the 12th minute.

Erik Jorgens cut in from the left and fed the ball to Kaku, who found Yahia Nader on the right and he set up the unmarked Jorgens to stroke the ball past Yassine Bounou from 14 yards having continued his run across the box.

Ahmed Barman then headed against his own crossbar as Al Hilal pushed forward, with Ali Al Bulayhi nodding across the face of the Al Ain goal soon after.

Six minutes into the second half the home side struck again, Al Dawsari slotting his low shot into the bottom corner after Barman’s header from Yasser Al-Shahrani’s long throw had landed at the Al Hilal winger’s feet. Eisa kept Michael’s deflected effort out at the near post with five minutes remaining while Sergej Milinkovic-Savic headed over moments later as Al Hilal sought in vain to score the goal that would take the game into extra-time.

Al Ain, who will bid for a second triumph in the competition and first since 2003, will meet Yokohama F Marinos for the title next month after the Japanese club defeated South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai in the other semi-final. Ulsan had won last week’s first leg 1-0 but lost the reverse fixture in Yokohama 3-2 to take the match to penalties. Yokohama held their nerve to win 5-4 in the shoot-out. The first leg of the final will be held in Japan on May 11 before the return match in Al Ain two weeks later.

Head coach Hernan Crespo said he is very happy with the team performed. “I am very proud of my players for performing their best in a packed away stadium. “I thank everyone in Al Ain Club, and I’m happy to be the coach of this great team. We respect ourselves and respect our opponents who are the leading club in Saudi Arabia and in this tournament.”

A disappointed Al Hilal head coach Jorge Jesus admitted his side had come up short over both legs. “What we did in both legs was not enough to reach the final. Although we played a great second half today and we created several chances, we didn’t use them.

“It is disappointing but we have to move on as we still have titles to compete for. The first is the league title and then the King’s Cup.

“We have lost only once in 45 matches and we should not forget this. I told the players in the dressing room to keep their heads high as they were the better side but were not lucky,” Jesus added.

With inputs from agencies