In the end, it was not to be for Johor Darul Ta’zim FC (JDT). It was not what everyone expected, even if things played out the way they probably should.
When the Malaysian champions were drawn to face Muangthong United of Thailand in the AFC Champions League qualifying playoff, seasoned observers braced for the worst. After all, they failed to break through the ceiling last year, going down at the same stage to three unanswered goals from Bangkok Glass. That was the last of four straight defeats Malaysians have suffered at the hand of Thai opposition. How could they break the losing streak?
A year later, we have the answer. A part of that equation changed with Mario Gomez replacing Bojan Hodak as the JDT coach. The Argentinian wasn’t a familiar name on the local scene, having made his name as Hector Cuper’s assistant at Valencia and Inter.
But, by successfully defending the Malaysian Super League as well as bringing home Southeast Asia’s first AFC Cup (the Asian equivalent of the Europa League), his name rang out on the streets of Johor. Should JDT emerge victorious from the marvellously named Thunderdome Stadium, he won’t ever be forgotten.
However, the odds be never in their favour, with defeat seemingly pre-ordained by the AFC. The Asian governing body ruled that the champions of smaller nations will have to qualify for the qualifiers, while the powerhouses of East and West Asia are guaranteed at least three group stage entrants.
As such, the champions of Malaysia and the rest have to negotiate through two qualifying rounds; an away match at Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Shanghai SIPG of China awaits the victors here.
Michel Platini may have been disgraced from recent scandals, but the one positive change he made in his reign was to allow more direct access for footballing minnows to make their mark. The expansion of Euro 2016 was proof of this, while the likes of FC Astana, Gent, and APOEL FC have bloodied more than their fair share of noses in recent UEFA Champions League campaigns.
Buriram United’s run to the quarter-final a few seasons ago brought pride to Thailand, but did little to actually improve the region’s fortunes; only two clubs from Southeast Asia are guaranteed group stage spots As such, it is unfortunate their vociferous fans are denied the chance to translate their passion into support for their club’s consistent success on the continent.
“A little variety can add a lot of spice especially at a time when every year sees many of the same familiar faces return,” writes John Duerden for FourFourTwo. “In parts of Southeast Asia there is so much colour, excitement, ambition and a better backdrop for broadcasters to showcase Asia’s Champions League around the world.”
He might not be entirely correct about the desire of television stations to screen these matches. For this match Malaysians had to rely on illegal social media streams, a minor travesty for a match of major importance. Rivalries on the domestic stage may be fierce, but many would momentarily cast aside domestic allegiances for international advancement.
With six terrestrial stations and nine dedicated sports channels carried by satellite service provider Astro (many of which regularly screen football matches and related programmes), you’d think they’d have gotten in on the act.
Alas, that was not to be, and Astro should have known better. They recently produced the movie Ola Bola, inspired by the Malaysian football team of the 1980s. Numerous scenes dramatised the importance of media technologies in visualising a nation supportive of its representatives, as people crowd around radios and television sets. Not screening JDT’s match may be due to legal and contractual wrangles, but the fact remains that by not doing so, someone somewhere has missed a trick.
Muangthong United is certainly not taking this (and Buriram’s success) lightly. First grabbing international attention with Robbie Fowler’s signing in 2011, the ‘Twin Qilins’ also became the first club of the Liverpudlian’s managerial career. They have continued the tradition of attracting fine attackers to the club ever since.
One of them is Thai superstar Teerasil Dangda. The top scorer of the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup (a hotly contested regional tournament for national teams), he rode the crest of that success all the way to Almeria in Spain’s La Liga. Though his performances there did not reach the same heights, it did not stem the waves of excitement felt by Muangthong fans when he returned last year.
The uncertainty surrounding local rivals BEC Tero Sasana also allowed them to swoop and sign three national team mainstays. The fact that two of them, Tanaboon Kesarat and Chanathip Songkrasin, are nicknamed the Thai Busquets and Messi respectively suggests how highly regarded they are. Retaining their top scorer Cleiton Silva of Brazil also proved to be a masterstroke.
JDT are no shrinking violets themselves. Upon renewed injection of royal interest (both emotional and financial) four years ago, they lured a succession of big names to Larkin Stadium, ranging from Euro 2008 winner Dani Guiza to Argentinian wizard Pablo Aimar.
The catalyst for last season’s success was former Argentinian international Luciano Figueroa, who retired by the end of the year; Birmingham City fans will recall him less fondly for a one-game stint in 2003.
This season, JDT was counting on a former Muangthong hero to fire them into the group stages. However, a strange turn of events has resulted in the Brazilian striker Paulo Rangel essentially being fired from the first team within days of his arrival.
Having starred in Thailand in 2013, he has built up an enviable goal record south of the border in Malaysia, but his high profile did not blanket his supposed attitude problems. Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, the Crown Prince of Johor and club owner, saw it fit to demote one of the top strikers in the league to their developmental squad in the second division.
Instead, Dangda’s opposite number 10 is the man previously regarded as the Malaysian Wayne Rooney. Safee Sali burst unto the international stage in 2010, a marauding forward whose style and strength at the AFF Suzuki Cup that year certainly befitted such comparisons.
Like Rooney, his decline in later years is apparent. Unlike the Manchester United forward, the 32 year-old striker has spent plenty of time on the JDT bench, relied upon as an impact substitute. In this match he would only set foot on the pitch with five minutes of normal time left. Somewhat disappointingly, Dangda himself was only summoned in extra time, as the game petered out to a goalless draw.
The good money would have been on a goal to come sooner or later, with Muangthong looking the likelier to score after an even first half. The longer the game went on, the more dagger-like the Thais attacked, cutting through the Malaysian defence almost at will. They poked and prodded, with only the stupendous performance of national team keeper Farizal Marlias preventing an onslaught.
His performance was a treat for the 1,000-strong Boys of Straits, JDT’s hardcore group of supporters. Many braved the 1,400km bus and train rides across the border, and all shrieked excitedly when Jorge Diaz got himself into promising positions.
Alas, the Argentinian and his teammates did not do themselves any justice, and it was up to Marlias to keep the Southern Tigers in the game.
When Marlias is helpless, Muangthong beat themselves. Cleiton had a one-on-one chance on the break away, but left his shooting boots at home, scuffing the ball wide instead.
The Brazilian even managed to bulge the net in the last minute of extra time, kicking the ball just as Marlias lofted it for a kick down field. The question of whether the keeper was in control of the ball was raised, but the referee favoured the Malaysians and yellow carded the South American.
The game went to penalties, where the real showdown of the tie revealed itself. Putting their big name attackers aside, both Marlias and Muangthong’s Kawin Thamsatchanan can lay claim to being the best in their position, with Singapore’s Izwan Mahbud completing the podium.
Marlias may have proven his mettle in the 120 minutes, stopping at least five goal-bound strikes from Muangthong. Unfortunately, he didn’t carry that form into the shootout, failing to stop any of the penalties he faced. It was up to Kawin to make the saves that mattered, keeping out all three penalty kicks. It was a performance befitting of arguably Southeast Asia’s number one No. 1.
With that, Muangthong would go on to face Asamoah Gyan and company in Shanghai. As for JDT, all is not lost as they go straight into AFC Cup for a chance to defend their trophy. With hindsight, an extensive year in the secondary competition would allow them to gain the kind of experience that could prove to be useful in the long term.
Another three-goal defeat – albeit this time on penalties – may not have been the ending Malaysians wanted, but their fighting performance wasn’t what many expected, the 120-minute goalless draw being a fair outcome.
In a match predicted to be a fight between those on the frontline, it was right that two of the region’s best goalkeepers won this battle instead.