Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) achieved one of their targets for the first leg of the 2017 AFC Cup ASEAN zone semi-final when they defeated Ceres-Negros FC 3-2 in an exciting first leg at Tan Sri Hj. Hassan Yunos Stadium on Wednesday. However the concession of two away goals meant that it's all to fight for in the second leg at Bacolod City in two weeks' time.
As expected Benjamin Mora gave a starting role for the returning Gonzalo Cabrera as well as continuing the partnership of Dominic Tan and Marcos Antonio from the Melaka United match. It was a uber attacking line-up that the Mexican used with Gabriel Guerra in central midfield and Azrif Nasrulhaq filling in at the right of the front three.
Risto Vidakovic also sprung no surprise and went for his strongest XI with Iain Ramsay, Kevin Ingresso, Maneul Ott and Bienvenido Maradon all starting. Fernando Rodriguez spearheads the attack as Ceres looks for the all-important away goal.
It was a even match at the start. Even though JDT had most of the possession, Ceres’ pressing was creating a problem for the home side in their attempt to get an early goal in the game.
However, the Southern Tigers didn’t have to wait long for the opening goal to arrive. In the 17th minute, Guerra found Cabrera in the middle of the pitch and the returning Argentine held off one player before drilling a low shot past Roland Muller in the away goal to give JDT a 1-0 lead.
That lead however didn’t last long as Ceres came back roaring just four minutes later from a swift counter attacking move. Jose Porteria held off Fazly Mazlan on the right hand side before delivering a sumptuous cross for Rodriguez to level things at 1-1.
Stung by the equaliser, Ceres continue to hand JDT a second blow in the 24th minute. A long range effort from Maradon outside the penalty box gave Ceres the lead for the first time in the match. The lack of midfield cover as Maradon was allowed to roam free was just poor defending from the home team.
JDT did have chances to at least draw level before half time but first Antonio struggled to keep his shot on target in the 30th minute then Hazwan Bakri’s shot in the 44th minute was well pushed out by Muller.
However, JDT were not to be denied just a minute later when Fazly was released on the left hand side. The left back’s cross was perfect for the on-rushing Safiq Rahim to head home for a 2-2 score before the teams head into half time.
After the thrilling first half, the match in the second half struggled to live up to the same billing. Ceres were doing their best to slow the game down and kill any momentum JDT had going into half time. So subdued were JDT that the opening chances in the second period came the way of the away side.
Twice Farizal Marlias had to be on his toes to deny Ceres shots. In the 53rd minute, Farizal denied Maradon who had nip the ball away from a stagnant Dominic before pushing out Ott's free kick effort just seven minutes later.
Dominic's nightmarish few minutes came to a halt after he was replaced by Amirulhadi Zainal as Mora seek to find back some semblance of organisation at the back. Recomposing themselves at the back, JDT set about to get into the lead again and did so in the 68th minute of the match.
Hazwan received the ball just outside the penalty box and managed to turn his marker. Even though his eventual shot lacked power and accuracy, it hit Herrera's and the cruel deflection left Muller stranded as JDT retook the lead at 3-2.
Mora made a further two changes by bringing on Safawi Rasid and Shakir Shaari for S. Kunanlan and Afiq Fazail respectively as he looked to shore things up now that his team are in the lead. It was better game management from the home team who have struggled to close out games in recent weeks.
3-2 was the final score and there was something for both sides to cling on ahead of the second leg. JDT knows they have a fight on their hands and the eventual victor of the tie will be decided in at least, another 90 minutes in Philippines.
The 14,280 spectators at Larkin were treated to an exciting match which ultimately gives JDT a slight advantage but unless they improve on their defence or get their more experienced centre backs ready for the second leg, they could well be looking at another defeat on Philippines soil this season.