Johor Darul Ta’zim vs Bengaluru: Can the Southern Tigers do it again?

AFC Cup semi-final first leg | Larkin Stadium | Wed Sept 28 | 8.45pm 

Billed as

A rematch of the round-robin

The lowdown

JDT Form

  • JDT 5-1 T-Team (Malaysia Super League)
  • JDT 2-1 South China (AFC Cup)
  • South China 1-1 JDT (AFC Cup)
  • JDT 3-0 Terengganu (Malaysia Super League)
  • Felda United 2-3 JDT (Malaysia Super League)

Bengaluru Form

  • Tampines Rovers 0-0 Bengaluru (AFC Cup)
  • Bengaluru 1-1 Tampines Rovers (AFC Cup)
  • Kitchee 2-3 Bengaluru (AFC Cup)
  • JDT 3-0 Bengaluru (AFC Cup)
  • Aizawl 2-1 Bengaluru (Federation Cup)

Having met and disposed of the 2016 I-League winners in the group stage, Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) will have a fair idea of what to expect when Bengaluru visit Johor Bahru on Wednesday.

Yet Mario Gomez will be practising caution, as the Blues have a new coaching line-up, new imports and a rejuvenated squad after a pre-season in India.

Back-to-back matches against Tampines Rovers in the quarter-final would have given their new players more match time to gel with the squad.

JDT showed signs that the long season is taking its toll on them, especially against South China in the last round, but while Gomez acknowledged his players were tired, he insisted they still have the hunger to pull through.

JDT have swept just about everything in domestic football. The only blip in 2016 remains the Malaysia Cup campaign, a tournament way down on their priority list due to AFC Cup commitments.

The Southern Tigers defeated Bengaluru 1-0 in Bangalore on matchday two before a second-string side disposed of the visitors 3-0 at Larkin in the final group game in May.

The AFC Cup defending champions recorded a perfect six in the group stage but appeared to have lost their edge in the final third when they faced South China in the last round. Bengaluru’s new coach Alberto Roca, a former assistant at Barcelona, will hope that remains the case.

Team news

Ever-dependable JDT right-back S. Kunanlan is doubtful for the match after being forced off against South China last week, but the club has an adequate replacement in Azrif Nasrulhaq. Azrif, who signed from Selangor in the mid-season window, started the weekend’s 5-1 win over T-Team in the Malaysia Super League (MSL).

The likes of skipper Safiq Rahim, Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, Hariss Harun and Azamuddin Akil are expected to return to the line-up after sitting out over the weekend.

Neither teams have suspended players but JDT have several players walking on a thin rope after picking up yellow in the previous rounds.

Player to watch: Juan Martin Lucero


Lucero and Diaz are a lethal combination

The Argentine may not have been as dangerous as compatriot Jorge Pereyra Diaz in the quarter-final but the 2016 signing has four goals to his name in the knockout rounds after a hat-trick against Ceres of Philippines in the last-16, and it would be foolish to give him space.

Lucero warmed up to the tie with four goals against T-Team on Saturday, taking his tally to 16 league goals – just one shy of top scorer Diaz. Lucero also scored the opening goal against South China.

Unlike Diaz, who tends to drop into space like how Luciano Figueroa did for the Southern Tigers last season, Lucero leads the JDT attack. Lucero and Diaz, who were together at Independiente last year, have formed a lethal partnership and scored over 50 goals between them in 2016.

Facts and figures

  • JDT are on a 23-match unbeaten run at Larkin and have only lost twice there in three years while the visitors have only three wins on their travels in all competitions.

  • JDT have won seven of their eight AFC Cup ties in 2016 while Bengaluru won four, drew one and lost three of their matches.

  • Bengaluru are the third Indian side to reach the AFC Cup semi-final, but Dempo and East Bengal were not successful at this stage.

  • JDT's appearance in the final last year was the first time a Southeast Asian country had progressed that far.

FourFourTwo prediction

JDT 2 Bengaluru 1

Photos: Bengaluru