Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim win AFC Cup final after Leandro Velazquez goal
Malaysia Super League (MSL) champions Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) made history on Saturday night by becoming the first Southeast Asian club to lift the AFC Cup.
That came after a gritty 1-0 win over Tajikistan champions FC Istiklol, who had the advantage of playing in front of their own fans at the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe.
Argentine forward Leandro Velazquez's strike midway through the first half was enough to separate the two sides, although Istiklol can count themselves unlucky having three goals disallowed.
Johor captain Safiq Rahim was named Most Valuable Player after a busy display in midfield while striker Luciano Figueroa returned from suspension to show leadership at both ends of the park.
JDT fired the first shot of the night after just 25 seconds with Safee Sali lashing wide from range, but it was almost all Istiklol pressure after that.
The home side should have gone 1-0 up on seven minutes when Manuchehr Jalilov prodded the ball past JDT goalkeeper Farizal Marlias from a throw-in. But Aidil Zaquan got back in time to prevent the ball from crossing the line.
Six minutes later, Khurshed Makhmudov reacted the quickest to thump home a corner but the goal was chalked off as he was adjudged to have fouled JDT defender Marcos Antonio in the build-up.
JDT remained patient and eventually broke the deadlock on 23 minutes with a strike that came against the run of play. Safiq's inswinging corner was punched out by Istiklol custodian Nikola Stosic, only for the lurking Velazquez to take a touch and steady himself before lashing home a sizzling grounder.
Mario Gomez's side then shut out Istiklol for the remainder of the half to go into the break ahead.
However, the Tajiks came roaring back after that break. Jalilov thought he had restored parity six minutes after the restart when he finished off a flowing team move, but his resulting celebrations were cut short by the assistant's offside flag.
Then on 58 minutes, Nuriddin Davronov bamboozled S Kunalan down the left before seeing his cross-shot grazing the top of the bar. Tempers was starting to fray as the game wore on, with JDT's Luciano Figueroa clashing with Siyovush Asrorov after the latter went in hard on substitute Mahali Jasuli.
Istiklol threw the proverbial kitchen sink at JDT in the final 20 minutes but the visitors' defence held firm.
Farizal first tipped over a fierce drive from Manuel Bleda before somehow keeping out Petro Kovalchuk's goal-bound header from the resulting corner. Fathullo Fathuloev's free-kick from just outside the box crashed against the JDT wall as the match edged towards six minutes of added time.
Istiklol thought they have grabbed a last gasp equaliser to push the final into extra time when Jalilov tapped home from close range after substitute Akhtahm Nazarov's deep cross was flicked on into his path. However, once again the potential equaliser was chalked off for offside as the home fans vented their fury by throwing objects onto the field.
Seconds later, the fulltime whistle sounded to end the hope of the more-fancied Istiklol adding another proud chapter in JDT's short but successful history.
The Southern Tigers are now on course to complete a magical treble should they clinch the Malaysia Cup in December. They've already booked their place in the quarterfinals with one group game to spare.
FC Istiklol: Nikola Stosic (GK), Siyovush Asrorov, Nuriddin Davronov, Khurshed Makhmudov (Parvizdzhon Umarbaev 73'), Manuel Bleda (Akhtam Nazarov 85'), Dzhakhongir Jalilov, Petro Kovalchuk, Dilshod Vasiev (C), Fathullo Fathuloev, Madhi Chahjooei, Manuchehr Jalilov
Johor Darul Ta'zim: Farizal Marlias (GK), S Kunanlan, Marcos Antonio, Aidil Zafuan, Fazly Mazlan, Jasazrin Jamaluddin, Hariss Harun, Safiq Rahim (C), Leandro Velazquez (Gary Steven Robbat 85'), Safee Sali (Mahali Jasuli 59') Luciano Figueroa