There’s a magic about Cup finals. And it doesn’t have to be the Champions League or the FIFA World Cup. In fact, I wouldn’t even go so far as to downplay the significance of he AFC Cup – it’s a pretty big deal here in Asia.
For all the shenanigans that has dominated Malaysian football throughout 2015, JDT’s run to the AFC Cup final comes in the form of a tiny respite. Hope has been restored to a certain extent, and if you were to notice the general pattern of discourse on social media, you’ll find fans of other Malaysian clubs rallying behind their local rival, cheering them on for a mission that appears to be cloaked under nationalistic pride.
It won’t be unfair to suggest that JDT have got nothing to prove at this point. As much as success is the end-game of every tournament, JDT’s long-term approach validates the success they’ve had thus far. Being in Dushanbe in itself, is an incredible transformation for a team that merely three years ago, did not exist.
A victory though, would go a long way in amplifying the progress they’ve acrued thus far. It would be a strong message to the rest of Asia – one that shifts the focus away from FAM’s misgivings on the international front. Question is though, can they do it? Can they pull off an upset on Saturday night, against all the odds that have been stacked unanimously against them
- BE MENTALLY PREPARED TO GRIND
This won’t be like any ordinary cup final that the JDT players have previously played in. It’s a cup final that would be taking place on enemy territory. Dushanbe is 26-hour journey away from Malaysia and it won’t be surprising if only a small group of JDT fans are present on the day. But what you will have, is a batallion of Istiklol faithful, looking to foster a hostile atmosphere that’ll give their team the Tall-important edge. And there are no two-ways about dealing with this situation. It all boils down to mental strength. Just like Datuk Ong Kim Swee’s Harimau Muda did at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in 2011, JDT will have to be mentally prepared to face a side that’ll have the added boost of adrenaline. And this mental strength needs to be internalized by every single individual within the JDT camp – from the players to the physio to the kitman.
2. KEEP MANUCHEKHR DZHALILOV AT BAY
In Dzhalilov, Istiklol have a man who is capable of single-handedly destroying JDT. His record with the Tajik League side is impeccable – Dzhalilov has netted a total of 26 goals this year, including 18 in the league as well as four in the AFC Cup. While he’s recognized as a forward, the 25 year-old loves dragging himself onto the flanks, before using his pace and upper-body strength to find his way into the box seamlessly. This is the mark of a man, who knows how to break defences down, and with JDT missing key names in the form of Fadhli Shas and Asraruddin Putra, Dzhalilov will be looking to pile the pressure on JDT’s defence. The away side though, will be banking on Marcos Antonio and if he’s able to keep Dzhalilov at bay, it would inadvertently multiply JDT’s chances of clinching the coveted AFC Cup.
3. DON’T SIT DEEP
Take a quick flashback to JDT’s match against Al Qadsia last month and you’ll be reminded of how they adopted a conservative approach on the pitch, by virtue of respecting the Qadsia’s superiority. It almost worked, until the Kuwaiti side eventually broke them down. But against Istiklol, JDT can’t afford to sit deep and dip themselves into the sea of conservative football for two particular reasons. Firstly, doing so, will only allow Istiklol the space to pile on the pressure and thrive of the home support, before eventually breaking JDT down – precisely what Qadsia did last time out. But secondly, this is a side that Johor DT are perfectly capable of beating, if they stick to their method of playing football. The Southern Tigers have done well by playing fluid and free-flowing football all season long, it would make zero sense for them to alter that, against an opponent, that at the end of the day, can be beaten.
4. UTILIZE THE PACE OF CHANTURU AND KUNANLAN
If there’s one thing JDT can do to spring a surprise on Istiklol, it’s the pace of Kunanlan and Chanturu. Nerves are usually tensed in every Cup final, and teams are bound to make mistakes every now and then. When mistakes are made on the pitch, pace can bring about devastating outcomes. When Saarvindran and Gopinathan were introduced by Zainal Abidin Hassan in Pahang’s second leg tie against Istiklol, both men ran rampant, and tormented the Istiklol defence with their sheer unpredictability. That eventually led to Saarvindran’s third goal of the game. Chanturu and Kunanlan are equally capable of doing so, if not better at it. Also remember, Safiq’s creativity and Amri’s composure means that Chanturu and Kunanlan can depend on decent ammunition for them to turn on the style. At the same time, both men can be providers as well, for the likes of Safee Sali and Luciano Figueroa. And all it takes to crush a team, is one counter-attack, purely fueled by pace and precision.
5. GET AN EARLY GOAL
The unique bit about playing away from home, is knowing that the pressure can be forced upon the home team within an instant. All it takes, is an early goal and Istiklol will be under pressure, with their passionate fanbase casting a watchful eye from the stands. The Tajik League side will come out with a game plan for the entire game. An early goal though, would force them to halt the plan and switch into offense mode, which could open up tiny pockets of spaces for JDT to exploit. In a game of this stature, one mistake or one moment of brilliance is all it takes to decide the outcome and final score line. And while an early goal may not win JDT the game, it could potentially be a precursor to a second goal that help their chances of making history, greatly.