Irrepressible Soufiane Rahimi inspires Hernán Crespo's Al Ain to AFC Champions League glory

Soufiane Rahimi's brilliant 13-goal haul in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League campaign -- including a double in the final -- inspired Al Ain to a second continental crown. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

Already the runaway top scorer of the 2023-24 AFC Champions League campaign following a series of outstanding displays, it initially looked as though an overreliance on star man Soufiane Rahimi could come back to bite Al Ain.

As Yokohama F. Marinos expertly nullified Rahimi's threat in the first leg of the ACL final a fortnight ago, en route to establishing a 2-1 aggregate lead, it was the Japanese outfit who had one hand on the trophy -- and a maiden continental title.

But it is never easy to keep a good man down, especially one who had already plundered 11 goals in the campaign as Al Ain claimed memorable triumphs over Saudi Pro League powerhouses Al Nassr and Al Hilal in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively.

And with Al Ain needing something special to overturn a deficit in Saturday's ACL final second leg, it was indeed Rahimi who produced a scintillating display to inspire the Emiratis to a 5-1 win on the evening -- and a 6-3 aggregate victory to become champions of Asia for a second time.

21 years after the iconic Bruno Metsu first led Al Ain to the promised land, it was another famous name who masterminded another historic triumph in ex-Argentina star Hernán Crespo, who in recent years has shown that his managerial prowess could just rival his predatory ways in front of goal as a player.

Having already guided unheralded Argentinean club Defensa y Justicia to their first taste of continental success in 2020 and Qatar's Al Duhail to a domestic treble last season, Crespo now has added arguably the biggest piece of silverware to his growing resume.

Yet, if it was him on the touchline who provided the brains behind Al Ain's unexpected triumph, the feet that fired them to glory undoubtedly belonged to Rahimi.

The Morocco international had already lit up the knockout stage with three goals over two legs that eventually culminated in a penalty shootout victory over Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr in the quarters.

Then, a stunning hat-trick inside the opening 38 minutes of Al Ain's semifinal clash with another formidable opponent in Al Hilal paved the way for a 5-4 aggregate victory -- and their date with Marinos in the decider.

After being kept uncharacteristically quiet in the opening encounter, Rahimi looked a man on a mission at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Saturday and it did not take long for him to make an impact.

Having fired Al Ain ahead on the evening in the 8th minute following a delightful one-two with Yahia Nader, Rahimi's sheer determination to nip in ahead of Shinnosuke Hatanaka to win a penalty saw him draw a penalty that was coolly converted by Kaku four minutes after the half-hour mark.

Yan Matheus hit back for Marinos five minutes before the break to level the aggregate score but the tie's pivotal moment then came deep into first-half stoppage time when Rahimi raced through on goal before being brought down by William Popp just as he was about to round the opposition goalkeeper.

The referee had no hesitation in showing Popp a straight red and, with no reprieve coming from the VAR, the numerical deficit would take its toll on Marinos after halftime.

With a ferocious drive that flew past Marinos' back-up custodian Fuma Shirasaka at his near post in the 67th minute, Rahimi put Al Ain back ahead on aggregate before a late double from substitute Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba -- with the visitors now completely all over the place as they tried to muster a miraculous comeback -- completed the emphatic victory.

It was a painful end to a campaign that had promised plenty for Marinos, including what they were hoping would be a maiden continental triumph.

Despite their status as one of the continent's most-famous clubs, especially given the five J1 League titles to their names, Marinos are yet to taste the biggest success Asian football has to offer.

Al Ain have. Twice now.

And as much as their Argentine coach with a burgeoning reputation deserves credit, Al Ain will be equally grateful to their irrepressible Moroccan striker -- who deservedly picked up the Most Valuable Player and Top Scorer awards -- for their second ACL crown.