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Al Ain players celebrate after winning the AFC Champions League final at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi, on Saturday. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: An emotionally charged Al Ain coach Hernan Crespo struggled for words during the post-match press conference but said the team deserved every bit of the praise during their remarkable run to win the AFC Champions League title on Saturday.

“It is very difficult to describe,” said the Argentine. “We are very proud with this title because we represented not only the club but also the country. We deserve the title,” he added.

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The Garden City club put on a show during the second leg to record an emphatic 5-1 win at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium triumphing 6-3 on aggregate.

The win marked Al Ain’s second Asian title and first since 2003 while being runners-up in 2005 and 2016.

Crespo’s side ousted Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in the quarter-finals before halting Al Hilal’s top-flight-record streak of 34 consecutive wins when they met in the semis.

“Every time, we were underdogs — in the quarter-finals, semi-finals — but I believed and every time, the players did it,” Crespo, who was appointed in November last year, said.

For Al Ain it wasn’t an easy task coming into the second leg since they had to overturn a one-goal deficit, but pushed by their ever-loyal fans. the team adopted a more aggressive approach to take the match away from Yokohama.

“The difference between the first and second legs was we changed our strategy. You play differently away and we also has some players who were not at a hundred per cent.

“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.”

The supremely talented Soufiane Rahimi erased Yokohama’s advantage with an eighth minute strike with Alejandro Romero then scoring from the penalty spot in the 33rd to put Al Ain ahead.

Yan Matheus drew Yokohama level on aggregate with his 40th minute goal, only for the Japanese side to then be reduced to 10 men following goalkeeper William Popp’s sending off deep into first half stoppage time.

Al Ain capitalised on the one-man advantage, with tournament MVP and top scorer Rahimi netting his second in the 67th minute while substitute Kodjo Laba scored twice in added time to complete the win.

“We understood what we had to do when we had the ball. I am not a genius, what is the most important is the players. They played with great heart.

“We needed to have the personality to do it and the players did it. Doing it in a final is not easy but the players did it. I am so proud to have won the AFC Champions League,” said Crespo.

Yokohama head coach Harry Kewell said the penalty was the turning point for his side.

“Congratulations to Al Ain, they are deserving winners but for us, the penalty changed the game. We got back into the game, then we got the red card and that changed things again.

“We worked extremely hard to get to this point and it hurts, it really hurts but will use the defeat as fuel and make sure it never happens again,” said Kewell.

With their victory, Al Ain also reach the new-look, 32-team Club World Cup, whose inaugural staging is scheduled for June and July next year in the United States.

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Soufiane Rahimi, who won the Most Valuable Player and Top Scorer awards, with the trophy in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Reuters

Rahimi wins MVP and Top Scorer awards

Soufiane Rahimi won the Most Valuable Player and Top Scorer awards, his 13 goals playing a pivotal role in Al Ain’s triumph.

Rahimi said he was proud to have played a role in Al Ain winning the AFC Champions League title for a second time.

“I remember when I signed with Al Ain and the first message was the priority of the club was to win the title.

“We competed with determination, even when results elsewhere were going against us. We remained focused and I congratulate my teammates, officials and all those who supported us,” Rahimi told the AFC Champions League website.

In scoring 13 goals, Rahimi matched the record for most strikes 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 inputs from agencies