Al Ain v Al Hilal: Rahimi is hat-trick hero for UAE side in ACL semi-final

Hernan Crespo's side triumph 4-2 in first leg to end Saudi giants' world-record winning streak

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After the downpour and the delay, a deluge in the Garden City.

Scrap the extra 24 hours, Al Ain had probably waited a lifetime for this. The UAE club took on Al Hilal’s heavyweight world-record setters in an Asian Champions League semi-final and, thanks primarily to a mesmerising 38 first-half minutes, put their rivals to the sword.

Champions of Asia in 2003, and runners-up twice since, Al Ain are 4-2 up from the first leg and one more remarkable result from another showpiece.

Hilal, record four-time champions and runners-up as recently as last year, must lick wounds and rebound, this initial encounter bent in their opponents’ favour by no shortage of courage and capability.

At Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Wednesday night, Hilal were for a large chunk run ragged and rocked to their core, the Saudi side with 34 consecutive victories finally vanquished. That world-record run met an abrupt end.

Soufiane Rahimi struck a hat-trick, Al Ain’s brightest light shining some more, his predatory opener and two converted penalties, taking him way out in front as the tournament’s top scorer. At the same time, it sent the home crowd into raptures.

Of course, 90 minutes and more remain in this still-gripping tie between two of West Asia’s most prominent clubs. But, for now, Al Ain are dreaming of a first continental crown in more than two decades. Halfway to the final, they can finish the first mission, at least, in Riyadh in seven days’ time.

It took them only six minutes on Wednesday to set the wheels in motion. Rahimi latched on to a deflected pass, raced through and slid his shot expertly under Mohammed Al Owais in the Hilal goal. Marking the Moroccan’s ninth goal of a dizzying campaign, it hoisted him out in front of the scoring charts.

Midway through the first half, Rahimi had his second. Sent beyond the Hilal defence on 23 minutes, he was clattered by Al Owais and, following a lengthy VAR check to determine if he had been offside, the in-form frontman coolly drilled home from the spot. Al Ain were rampant, Hilal reeling.

Seven minutes from half-time, Rahimi and the hosts had a third. This time, Erik sped forward from full-back and, advancing into the Hilal area, was scythed down by Ali Al Bulaihi. The Hilal defender, forever a protagonist, pleaded his innocence, the referee was convinced to consult VAR but, after an age, he awarded the penalty.

Again, Rahimi sent Al Owais the wrong way. Having scored three times across two legs of last month’s quarter-final triumph against Hilal’s neighbours Al Nassr, Rahimi required 38 minutes to match it.

Yet Hilal then snatched an apparent lifeline. Not long into the second half, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic sent a low centre from the right into Malcom, who finished from close range. Enjoying a fantastic debut season with Hilal, the Brazilian grabbed the ball and headed straight for the centre circle.

But Al Ain struck back in an instant. Once more, Rahimi was fouled in the area, this time by Kalidou Koulibaly. However, VAR was again called into action, Kaku assumed responsibility. The Paraguayan, who spent time in Saudi Arabia with Al Taawoun, swept his spot-kick into the corner.

To their credit, though, Hilal hit back. There were 12 minutes remaining when Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Essa saved well from Milinkovic-Savic but couldn’t clear. With the ball loose, Salem Al Dawsari swivelled and turned it home, at the same time dragging Hilal back from the brink.

They still have some way to go. At 4-2 down – Al Dawsari did rattle a post in injury-time – Asian football’s great achievers, brimming more than ever with star talent, are staring down the barrel.

For sure, they cannot be written off. No doubt, Al Ain will need a duplicate display in Riyadh next week. But on a wild Wednesday night in the Garden City, they proved the 24-hour postponement was worth the wait.

Updated: April 18, 2024, 11:00 AM