On paper, this looks like a mismatch. Malaysia Super League (MSL) outfit Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), despite their blistering rise domestically and in the AFC Cup, have a mammoth task awaiting them in Japan in yet another significant moment for the Malaysian club.
The gap between Japan and Malaysia is so wide, not many would place a wager on an upset on the cards. No Southeast Asian side has progressed from the Champions League playoff since Singapore Armed Forces (now Warriors FC) defeated Muangthong United in 2010.
JDT defied the odds to defeat Bangkok United in the Preliminary Round 2 last week but Gamba Osaka are a different animal altogether. Sitting back, soaking in the pressure and hitting on the break, or snatching it in penalties will be the order of the day for Benjamin Mora’s side.
Gamba Osaka, who won the Champions League in 2008, finished runners-up in the J-League last year, the only time Kenta Hasegawa did not finish the season with any trophy.
The Southern Tigers would, however, be hoping the fact Gamba Osaka have not played a competitive match in 2017 would mean some rusty legs, but that is unlikely to be the case for the usually determined Japanese.
Gamba Osaka have a fresh squad to choose from as the J-League only commences in a fortnight.
JDT, however, have concerns of their own due to injuries and suspension.
Vice-captain Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak is still out, thus enabling Fadhli Shas another start in the heart of defence, but he may not partner the ever commanding Marcos Antonio as the Brazilian is doubtful.
The Malaysian club will also be without Jeronimo Barrales as the Argentinean new signing received his marching orders barely eight minutes after being brought on in extra-time against Bangkok United in the last round.
Brian Ferreira and Gonzalo Cabrera will lead the line up front, but at the back is where JDT could be spending most of their time on Tuesday.
Players to watch: Yosuke Ideguchi vs Safiq Rahim
JDT skipper Safiq Rahim will have to watch out for this Gamba starlet, who is making waves in Japan.
Ideguchi, at only 20, earned his first international call-up last November. He is yet to make his International debut but with age on his side, the central-midfielder could follow the footsteps of club-mate Yasuhito Endo, who is Japan’s highest capped player.
He was also named J-League’s Best Young Player in 2016.
Safiq, on the other hand, is Malaysia’s finest player of his generation and has a cabinet full of accolades – including the 2015 AFC Most Valuable Player.
The coaches: Kenta Hasegawa vs Benjamin Mora
It is still early days for Mora, who replaced Mario Gomez at JDT last month, but things seem to be working just fine so far.
Mora is still finding the right balance in the JDT line-up following several moves – including the departure of 2015’s star men Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Juan Martin Lucero.
His opposing number on Tuesday meanwhile has already established himself at Gamba since joining the then J2 side in 2013. He secured promotion in his first season by winning the second tier and in the following season took Japan by storm, winning the J-League and completing a domestic treble.
Facts and Figures
- No Southeast Asian side has made the Champions League through the qualifiers since 2010, but Thailand’s Chonburi came mighty close when they took Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol to extra time before losing 3-1 in 2015.
- JDT are the first Malaysian side to play in the Champions League playoff round. The club was unsuccessful in reaching this stage for the past two seasons.
- Gamba Osaka have not lost to a Southeast Asian side in the Champions League, winning eight out of their 10 matches.
Gamba Osaka 2 JDT 0. The visitors could be defending all day but Gamba are favourites to secure a convincing win nevertheless.
After stunning Asia by lifting the 2015 AFC Cup, Johor Darul Ta’zim can make more history for Malaysian football when they travel to Japan to face Gamba Osaka on Feb. 7.
If the Southern Tigers manage an unprecedented win, a place in the 2017 AFC Champions League (ACL) awaits.
It’s a huge task, but Safiq Rahim and teammates can heed these three lessons from their momentous victory away to Bangkok United to take to Japan.
1. Look to talented locals to deliver
Safiq Rahim headlined the victory over Bangkok with a well-taken goal, besides putting in another solid shift full of creativity and running. The captain has picked up where he left off on the regional front, after scoring eight goals in the 2015 AFC Cup.
Safiq aside, JDT produced winners all over the pitch at Bangkok’s Thammasat Stadium on Tuesday night. Azamuddin Akil and S. Kunanlan combined brilliantly on the right flank, Safawi Rasid dazzled with stepovers on his first start, while Amirulhadi Zainal kept a tight lid in front of the back four.
When it came to lottery of penalties, Benjamin Mora did not make the same mistake as Mario Gomez, and trust all of his imports with the spot kicks.
While the foreign cast of 2016 failed from six yards at the same stage of this competition, the local army of 2017 flourished. The Malaysians carried this team to within 90 minutes of the ACL, and they should be trusted to do so again against Gamba.
After being dumped out of the last two editions of the ACL qualifiers in Thailand, it was clear that JDT were bent on removing that monkey off their backs.
They started strongly, and fashioned more chances throughout the 120 minutes. But before Safiq’s opener, there was some sort of edginess that hung in the air each time the men in blue closed in on their opponents. It seemed as if they did not believe they could make the net bulge.
That mindset, must vanish before kickoff against Gamba. The Japanese are far superior opposition compared to Bangkok United, and any chance that is presented, must be capitalised upon.
This is where Mora’s role becomes ever so important. He must instill that level of trust he has in his players, and get them to resonate with that same level of belief in themselves.
3. Don’t put Gamba on a pedestal
It can’t be denied that JDT’s Japanese opponents are seasoned ACL attendees, having won the tournament in 2008, and having made the knockout stages four times after that.
But Gamba are not invincible. They finished last in Group G in 2016, with four losses and two points. Not knowing exactly how the Southern Tigers operate, added with the pressure of playing in front of their home crowd, could also sway things in the direction of the Malaysians.
If Mora wants an inspiring underdog tale to rally his men, he need not look further than Kashima Antlers, who are based just over six hours from Osaka. The J-League champions more than held their own against the mighty Real Madrid in December’s FIFA Club World Cup final, and were only undone through a Cristiano Ronaldo brace in extra time.
Selangor were the last Malaysian side to mix it up with Asia’s elite when they finished runners up to Israeli club Hapoel Tel Aviv in the six-team 1967 Asian Champions Club tournament, having also competed in the old Asian Club Championship until 2001-02.
The time has come, for another Malaysian outfit, to make their entrance on the most illustrious Asian football stage of all.