We must focus on ourselves – Ricardo Rambo demands South China Rambos against JDT
So far, 2016 has been a lot like 2015 for the all-conquering Johor Darul Ta'zim.
The Southern Tigers won the Malaysia Super League title last year, a feat that has just been repeated. In 2015, JDT also lifted the AFC Cup, defeating South China at the quarter-final stage.
The important thing when you play at home is that you have to win. We can put pressure on the weak points that JDT have.
The pair are due to meet in the last eight meeting once again. Unlike last year, this time the first leg is in Hong Kong and this time, South China coach Ricardo Rambo is determined that the outcome will be different too.
“We lost to Johor last season so there is a chance for some kind of revenge for some of the players,” the Brazilian told FourFourTwo. “The team is a little different. I wasn't here last time and I can say that around 60 per cent of the players are different.”
Ahead of the first leg on Tuesday, South China are the underdogs against the defending champions of the AFC Cup who have breezed through to this stage and breezed through most of the season. JDT won the domestic title on Friday without losing a game.
The form in the AFC Cup has been even more imperious with six wins out of six in the group stage and then a 7-2 thrashing of Kaya of the Philippines in the second round.
JDT do leave some space behind them and we can try and use that. We have to make the match a high-intensity match, we have to press them high.
If the Hong Kong team are to do what others in Asia or Malaysia have yet to do and beat JDT then they are going to have to be at their very best and make use of every advantage they have.
“They have been playing games every four or five days all season. They may be more match-fit but we are fresher,” Rambo added.
“You need to have good preparation and training. We are fresh but not match fit. The most important point is the experience of our players.”
The experience last year was a creditable 1-1 draw in Johor but a 3-1 loss at Mong Kok Stadium followed.
Playing at home first can present something of a dilemma to a coach. “It is very important not to lose away goals and then we can go away and play our game in Malaysia and not think about that,” Rambo mused.
“We will attack but still be aware of their attacking strengths. We know they have quick players in attack so we need to be at our best.”
“But the important thing when you play at home is that you have to win. We can put pressure on the weak points that Johor have.”
Knowing the weaknesses of the three-time Malaysian champions is not the same as being able to do something about them, but Rambo has a plan.
“Their strong point is on the right side, they like to attack a lot down that side and their full-backs like to get forward at every opportunity,” he said. “They do leave some space behind them and we can try and use that. We have to make the match a high-intensity match, we have to press them high and hard and try and force mistakes.”
Rambo is well aware of JDT's biggest talents and is impressed by captain Safiq Rahim: “He is a good player and an important player. The two strikers are efficient up front and form a good partnership but we have good players too.”
We have to play our best football and everyone has to play their part. We don't want to focus on them, but think about ourselves and our own game.
The boss talks of Australian striker Ryan Griffiths and new striker Nikola Komazec. The Serbian is a new arrival in Hong Kong and scored the only goal of South China's only league game so far this season, a 1-0 win over BCGS Hong Kong Sapling on August 28.
“We also have Chan Wai Ho who is very steady and experienced in defence and an important player for us. We have changed our goalkeeper too. He is local so we can field four foreign players on the field,” he continued.
There are differences in approach as well as personnel: “From last year, we have changed a little. We are a more attacking side, we press more and are steady in midfield and defence. I don't want to talk too much about how we play but we will be attacking. It is the best way to beat Johor."
Rambo knows all about JDT's latest domestic success. It all means that Mario Gomez and his men are fully focused on the AFC Cup. “The mood and the atmosphere at Johor must be very good right now,” the 45-year-old added.
“But we have to think about our team. We have to play our best football and everyone has to play their part. We don't want to focus on them, but think about ourselves and our own game.”
It is a big game but South China have faced another giant of late, in the shape of Juventus. The Italian giants visited for a friendly in July, coming back from a goal down to win 2-1.
“It was our first pre-season game. We took the lead in the first half and played really well,” Rambo said.
“In the second half we tried more young players and they all did a good job. We conceded two goals against a strong team from Europe. It was great preparation for us.”
Now though, the focus is all on the AFC Cup: “There will be a full stadium cheering us on and not only that, we have all of Hong Kong behind us. Everyone is very excited about this match.
"It is not easy to get to a final of a big competition but now we are here, then why can't we go all the way? Hong Kong would be so happy and it would be a great achievement."
Photos: Asian Football Confederation