JDT may have missed the boat

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JDT may have blown their chance of retaining the AFC Cup after failing to gain a first leg lead in Malaysia on Wednesday night.

It all seemed so academic. Reigning AFC Cup champions, the mighty Johor Darul Ta’zim playing India’s Bengaluru at fortress Larkin, where opposing teams are crushed on a regular basis and Bengaluru had been beaten 3-0 by a second-string JDT side just four months earlier.

A guaranteed home win, or so everyone thought!

Only trouble was, this was a vastly different Bengaluru side from the one that surrendered meekly in May and new coach Albert Roca and his team hadn’t read the script.

Bengaluru made their intention’s known straight from the start, pressing JDT and forcing the home side into errors. Disrupting play to deny them the possession from which to build a ‘head of steam’.

It worked, and it was around 20 minutes in before JDT had a first sight at goal. The home side did eventually begin to dominate, but missed several good chances, with Juan Martin Lucero twice denied by opposition keeper Amrinder Singh.

Come the second half and JDT deservedly grabbed the lead on 52 minutes when Pereyra Diaz rose to head home after the Bengaluru defence switched off.

The floodgates would now open.

Only they didn’t.

Not only that, but Bengaluru then had the audacity to equalise. Lyngdoh silencing the noisy home crowd with a stunning 25-yarder into the corner.

And try as they might, Johor’s potent Argentine attacking duo could not score again, thanks to some poor finishing and dogged defending by a packed Bengaluru defence.

Now, Johor need to take the initiative when they travel to India next month, as they go there needing a win.

Only trouble is, they will have to do so without Diaz and Lucero, who will be suspended after picking up their second yellow cards of the knockout stages.

Fellow attacker and natural replacement Amri Yahyah will also be missing after he too was booked, meaning Johor face a striking crisis ahead of the second leg.

One would think a club of Johor’s stature would have a wealth of attacking talent, but no. Veteran Safee Sali is the only other specialised striker in the squad.

JDT do have a number of players who could support Sali in attack, and skipper Safiq Rahim knows where the goal is, with seven AFC Cup goals this campaign already, but it’s hard to see where the goals will come from.

Coach Mario Gomez now faces sleepless nights ahead of the second leg in 20 days time as he tries to figure out who can grab the goals to take Johor to the final.

But stripped of his main attacking threat and facing an increasingly confident Bengaluru side, he may be left to rue the chances that went begging at the Larkin on Wednesday night.

Richard Hazeldine