Malaysian champions JDT must hold their nerve in AFC Cup final
The Malaysia Super League champions (MSL) may have enjoyed a huge slice of fortune to make it through to the final in Dushanbe against FC Istiklol, but they can turn that good fortune into a real springboard for the club. Victory is within their grasp, providing they do these three things well.
1. Marcos' need to lead
Brazilian centre-back, Marcos Antonio, will never have a more important game in Southeast Asia. Whatever the trophies he and Johor go onto win in the future, the club will eventually be judged by their progress on a bigger stage. And this is the biggest stage JDT have ever performed on. The 6-foot-2 Antonio is the defensive glue for them to build a platform in this game.
Istiklol are a dangerous team going forward. In left-footed striker Kurshed Makhmudov, the talismanic Dilshod Vasiev, and Manu Dzhaililov, they have three fleet-footed front men who have teased and tormented their way all the way to the AFC Cup final. They've collected some fine scalps on the way, including Pahang, and Al-Qadsia -- two teams who have beaten JDT this season.
The atmosphere in Dushanbe will be reminiscent of a passionate night at the Larkin. The stadium is similar in layout to JDT's home ground, and the passion of the Tajik fans is every bit as vibrant as what Johor's Ultras can produce. Amidst the mayhem, JDT need their 30-year-old defensive rock to stand tall. If the rock is firm, he may just inspire those around him to produce an upset.
2. Figueroa's important task
Assuming Marcos and co. can avoid calamity at one end, responsibility then falls on fellow South American Luciano Figueroa to produce upfront. It is a huge boost that Figueroa's suspension was served in the semifinals. And this is where JDT have a real trump card in the former Argentina striker.
At the Respublikanskii Stadium, Istiklol love to attack. Jut ask MSL runners-up, Pahang. They were taken aback by the ferocity of the early Istiklol onslaught, particularly down their right flank, in their AFC Cup quarterfinal loss in August.
But there is a weakness. Siroyvush Asrori is a big, raw centre-back. And the Tajikistan international can be exposed by fast breaking players, and those who can get him in a one-on-one situation on the edge of the penalty area. He can be a liability, as Istiklol's 16 goals conceded in 11 AFC Cup games suggests.
It may be overly optimistic for JDT to go out to attack Istiklol from the kickoff. But an on-the-break performance, akin to the one that saw off South China in the quarterfinals, may be just the tactic required for their big day.
3. The psychological barrier
JDT need to get over a mental hurdle that has seen them fail in big games on too many occasions. Malaysia FA Cup final and Malaysia Cup final defeats have left scar. Semifinal losses in the FA Cup, and the occasional MSL nightmare -- 4-1 at Kelantan away, as an example -- have also threatened to derail them.
The added challenge is that the final is a one-legged match at the home of their opponents. And even worse, the pitch in Takikistan is artificial -- a similar surface to the one that LionsXII play on -- which is considered a real advantage for the home team.
But a motivating factor for JDT could be that this is a perfect opportunity to repay Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim - better known as TMJ -- for his leadership and investment. TMJ has put his state first, and nothing has been too much for him, in an attempt to give his players the best platform on which to perform.
It is an investment that goes beyond money. He has put time in, created a rumpus on their behalf, and defended his players to the hilt if ever they've felt slighted. So this is the time for the players of JDT to show mental and physical resolve, and put on the performance of a lifetime.
A positive result could potentially change the face of Malaysian football by moving JDT a step closer to TMJ's dream of becoming one of the giants of Asian football.
With 25 years media experience, Asian commentator Dez Corkhill is a former VP of Astro Arena in Malaysia, and head of Sports Centred Media Services.