BY OOI KIN FAI Follow on Twitter
It will be an experience to savour for Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT), their fans and fans of Malaysian football as the Southern Tigers embark on a hugely important 90 minutes that could be of historical signficance. A positive result in at least an hour and a half of football against the mighty Gamba Osaka from Japan that could launch JDT as the first Malaysian team in the Asian Champions League group stage.
Even before a ball has been kicked in anger, there's one thing that the JDT players need to master more than their own nerves - and that is the cold weather. Coming from a tropical country, they would have been used to play under the sun, rain or cloudy conditions but the cold is a different animal altogether. The AFC Cup final back in 2015 was only played in temperaturs between 10°C to 15°C whereas it is expected to be 6°C tomorrow evening in Osaka.
If the physical preparations isn't done right, players could be suffereing muscle injuries before they even have a chance to settle down in the match and that could cost JDT dearly. The onus is on Benjamin Mora, his coaching staff as well as his conditioning team to ensure that they do not make amateur mistakes that would hamper their chances of creating history.
Gamba only finished fourth in the J1 League last year and hence have to go through this qualifying fixture against JDT. They have won the tournament before having done so back in 2008 and from that squad, one player still remains in the current squad - none other than Yasuhito Endo. No other player has more international caps for Japan than Endo and his experience will be a huge factor in favour of the home side.
Under the tutelage of Kenta Hasegawa, Gamba won the J1 as recent as 2014 and were finalist of the J-League Cup last year. Throughout his four years tenure at the club, Hasegawa has overseen plenty of changes at the club as well as overseeing the growth of young players through the highly-touted Gamba academy.
One particular name that jumps out immediately is winner of the 2016 J-League Young Player of The Year in Yosuke Ideguchi. The 20-year-old central midfielder hasn't yet broken into the full Japan national side but surely it isn't long before he's called up to that squad. Together with Brazilian Ademilson who was once part of the Brazil U-23 squad, will be the key players that JDT have to reckon with at Suita City Football Stadium.
If JDT are to progress through to Group H to face up against Adelaide United (Australia), Jiangsu FC (China) and Jeju United FC (South Korea); Mora has to get his tactics spot on. That JDT are the weaker of the two sides will not be a hard fact to own up to even for the staunchest of JDT fans and as such a more defensive and discpline approach could be in order. In some ways, it's no dissimilar to how JDT set-up for the previous match against Bangkok United.
If Mora were to go for a 5-4-1, 4-5-1 or even a 4-6-0 formation; it would not be a surprise and it shouldn't be something to frown upon either. For JDT to succeed, the quartert of S. Kunalan, Marcos Antonio, Fadhli Shas and Fazly Mazlan cannot afford to have a bad game. Neither could the shield in front of them, that are likely to comprise of Amirulhadi Zainal and Safiq Rahim. Jeronimo Barrales is not availale for this match with his compatriots Brian Ferreira and Gonzalo Cabrera could be doing more defensive work than they would have preferred.
There's no hiding behind the fact that Gamba Osaka are the outstanding favourite to win the tie and advance to the group stage. However, what makes football one of the most watch sports in the world is its ability to spring a surprise or two when one least expects. 90 minutes where each and everyone of the Johor Darul Ta'zim players could make themself a proper heroes in the eyes of fans, perhaps the game will throw us another one of it's memorable surprises on Tuesday night in Osaka.