JDT must believe in themselves in ACL playoff against Gamba Osaka
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.
Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.