AFC Cup Final Preview: Istiklol v Johor Darul Ta'zim. History in the making?
An unlikely final
A decider that should not have been, but fast forward a few years and no one will be talking about how FIFA’s ban on the Kuwait Football Association decided who played in the final. Istiklol were down 4-0 to Kuwait SC after the first leg, while defending champions Qadsia defeated Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) 3-1 in the opening game of the other semi-final. But that’s all history now!
Both teams have a chance to etch their respective names in the history books. The Tajikistan side is only the second Central Asian team to reach the AFC Cup final, while JDT have never reach a continental final of any sorts. In fact JDT are the first Southeast Asian side to reach the AFC Cup final.
The Southern Tigers are certainly hopeful and, having gone beyond their expectations, have nothing to lose. Even if they don’t return to Malaysia with the trophy, the club has already proven nothing is impossible if you have the conviction for it.
But this battle will not be easy. Istiklol already disposed of Pahang 4-0 at the same stadium in the quarter-finals in August. The artificial pitch could turn out to be a factor looking at how Malaysian teams struggle to get into rhythm while playing on LionsXII’s similar pitch in Jalan Besar.
Istiklol’s home form is something JDT need to overcome too. The hosts are unbeaten at home since a 3-1 defeat to Erbil of Iraq in their opening AFC Cup match way back in February.
JDT’s midfield, which boasts the likes of Singaporean star Hariss Harun, Malaysian skipper Safiq Rahim and tough holding midfielder Gary Steven Robbat, will need to be at its best to stop Manuchekhr Dzhalilov and company from dictating the play.
JDT welcomed the news that Luciano Figueroa and S. Chanturu’s suspensions were washed away, despite their semi-final second leg against Qadsia being cancelled. Unfortunately, Figueroa is battling a hamstring injury and how much of a part he plays remains to be seen.
Junior Eldstal and Fadhli Shas are out injured, with experienced centreback Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak expected to slot into the heart of defence alongside the commanding Marcos Antonio. The latter will be expected to mark Khurshed Makhmudov.
Player to watch: Marcos Antonio
The Brazilian’s arrival at JDT last year was a surprise as he replaced Singapore international Baihakki Khaizan, who arrived just four months earlier having been part of the league’s meanest defence in LionsXII’s 2013 Malaysia Super League-winning season.
Istiklol’s strongest area is its attack and, having scored 53 times in just 15 league games this season, expect Antonio to be kept busy all night. He will have Hariss and Gary dropping back to help, but being the last barrier between opponents and goalkeeper Izham Tarmizi Roslan, the former FC Nuremberg player holds the key to JDT’s success.
JDT were the only MSL team to concede less than 20 times (18) and Antonio played an integral role in their title defence.
Facts and figures
- In 15 league matches, Istiklol won 14 and drew the other, scoring 53 goals and conceding just two. That is some record. By contrast, JDT lost four times in the MSL before nicking the title with a two-point lead over Pahang.
- Figueroa leads JDT’s goal-scoring charts in the competition with five, while Safee Sali and Safiq have four each. For Istiklol, Dzhalilov and Makhmudov are their leading scorers with four goals apiece.
- JDT have a mixed record in their away matches in the AFC Cup, defeating Balestier Khalsa in Singapore and India’s East Bengal during the group stages and beating South China 3-1 in Hong Kong in the quarter-finals. They lost 2-0 to Kitchee in Hong Kong and went 3-1 down to Qadsia SC in Kuwait in the semi-final first leg.
Istiklol 1 JDT 2: This could go down to the wire. Istiklol are stronger on paper and have home advantage. But this JDT outfit looks hungry and if they can contain the firepower coming at them, the Southern Tigers might just nick this one.
Main photo: Asian Football Confederation