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Muangthong United vs JDT: Can the Malaysian champions find a way past the Thai giants?

AFC Champions League Preliminary Round 2 | Supachalasai Stadium | Tuesday 23 Jan | 7.30pm local time (8.30pm Malaysian time)

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A clash of the ASEAN titans.

THE LOWDOWN

A place in the AFC Champions League Playoff – the final round of qualifiers before the tournament proper – is at stake for both of these teams.

The hosts impressed in the group stage last year, qualifying to the knockout stages in a group that included Kashima Antlers, Ulsan Hyundai and Brisbane Roar. But Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale was too much for the Thai side to handle in the quarter-finals as they suffered a 7-2 aggregate defeat.

The Southern Tigers have beefed up their squad with talent and experience

The Thai League T1 runners-up have faced Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) at this stage before, prevailing 3-0 on penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes in 2016, but they could be more confident this time round, especially after the heights they reached in the tournament.

The Southern Tigers, meanwhile, have beefed up their squad with talent and experience after bringing back imports Hariss Harun, Luciano Figueroa and Jorge Pereyra Diaz this season.

JDT are aiming to be the first Malaysian team to play in the Champions League. They flattered to deceive in the AFC Cup in 2017, falling to Filipino club Ceres in the ASEAN zonal semi-final.

But they have restored plenty of confidence since bowing out of the continental competition, sealing a record fourth straight Malaysia Super League title and then taking out the Malaysia Cup.

TEAM NEWS

The visitors are likely to field new signing Bruno Gabriel Soares at centre-back as they get Marcos Antonio back to full fitness.

JDT are expected to go with experience in the middle of the park with former Levante midfielder Natxo Insa, Singapore’s Hariss and Malaysia captain Safiq Rahim in the line-up to provide Figueroa and Diaz the supply they need up front.

Malaysia Under-23 star Safawi Rasid is expected to return in time for the match but it remains to be seen if Ulisses Morais will want to throw him straight into action after missing pre-season. Yet he is already in competition mode and could be handy for a late run in the match.

Photo: Muangthong United

Muangthong, who boast a number of established Thailand internationals, no longer have the services of the War Elephants' No.1 Kawin Thamsatchanan after the 27-year-old custodian agreed to join Belgian second-tier club Oud-Heverlee Leuven.

Star striker Teerasil Dangda and defender Theerathon Bunmathan are also going abroad for the 2018 season, but they will see out the Champions League qualifying rounds before going to the J.League.

Brazilian signing Jackson Coelho, who fired Buriram United to the league title last year, may not start the match as he is not fully fit.

THE COACHES: TOTCHTAWAN SRIPAN VS ULISSES MORAIS

Totchtawan was also in charge the last time these two teams met in 2016, having just joined the Kirins after spells with BEC Tero Sasana, Saraburi and Police United.

The 46-year-old former Thailand international won the top division title in his first season with Muangthong and did remarkably well in his second season. 

Morais joined JDT at mid-season last year and the team showed its dominance in Malaysia, winning two trophies to conclude its season. The Portuguese has had more time to work with the players now.

KEY BATTLES

Sarach Yooyen vs Natxo Insa

Sarach is among the leading midfield enforcers in the region and it will be his task to ensure the hosts have an edge in the middle. It will not be easy, however, considering the strength JDT have in their engine room.

Insa, who holds a Malaysian passport, joined JDT in mid-year and caught just about everyone’s attention in Malaysia. Insa was a regular in the Levante side that won the Segunda Division in Spain in the 2016/17 season and has quickly become an important player for the visitors.

Photo: Johor Southern Tigers

Jorge Pereyra Diaz vs Celio Ferreira dos Santos

Diaz’s return to JDT has been a surprise considering the acrimonious manner in which he left after the 2016 campaign, but the club will be pleased to have him back because of his impact in the past. And with Figueroa expected to provide supply, the prospects are intriguing,

He will have to get past Dos Santos, who has been a rock at the back for Muangthong since he joined the club in 2017. The 29-year-old Brazilian is strong in the air and difficult to beat.

Photo: Johor Southern Tigers

FACTS AND FIGURES

  • JDT have unsuccessfully attempted to navigate the Champions League qualifiers yearly since 2015, falling to Thai opponents for two consecutive years before defeating Bangkok United in 2017, only to be sent packing by Gamba Osaka in the Playoff round.
  • The two clubs have only played each other once in competitive matches, with Muangthong prevailing 3-0 on penalties.
  • JDT will drop to the AFC Cup if they do not clear the round, while Muangthong will be out of the continental stage altogether if they are unsuccessful.

PREDICTIONS

Vijhay Vick, FFT's Malaysian representative: JDT to win 1-0

Kritikorn Thanamahamongkhol,  FFT's Thailand representative: Muangthong to win 2-1

Main Photo: JDT