JDT's bad omens for AFC Champions League after winless Thai tour
Bangkok United head coach Mano Polking is unlikely to be enduring sleepless nights ahead of the AFC Champions League (ACL) preliminary round clash with Johor Darul Ta'zim after watching the Malaysian champions outclassed in a 1-0 friendly defeat at Buriram United on Saturday night.
Polking will have noted the weak defending that allowed Buriram's danger man Diogo Luis Santo to side foot home the winning goal, unchallenged after a free kick from the left in the sixth minute.
He will also have observed that there was little to suggest that JDT would prevent a third consecutive ACL loss on Thai soil as Buriram outplayed them for most of the game. Only the home side's profligacy prevented this from becoming an embarrassing scoreline for the visitors before the hour mark.
A late rally saw JDT exert some pressure on the hosts in the last 15 minutes, but this was a reality check in their preparations for the game in Bangkok on Jan. 31. Buriram were a class above JDT for the first hour and only poor finishing, the woodwork and some inspired goalkeeping from Farizal Marlias prevented a rout.
Despite an indifferent performance from the Malaysian side, Polking insisted that they had demonstrated a threat.
"In the first half, Buriram dominated the game and created some good chances," Polking told ESPN FC. "But at the end of the second half, Johor showed that they are very dangerous, and almost levelled the match."
2015 AFC Cup champions JDT are determined to reverse their ACL fortunes, having gone out to Thai opposition in the second preliminary round for the last two years.
In 2015, a lacklustre performance saw them defeated 3-0 by Bangkok Glass. Last year, they came much closer to progressing, but were beaten on penalties by Muang Thong United, following a 0-0 stalemate.
The Southern Tigers would have been hoping two games in Thailand this year would stand them in better stead as they prepare to face Bangkok United. After a 1-1 draw with Chonburi last midweek, taking on the team who ruled Thailand from 2013 to 2015 was always going to represent a sterner challenge. And it is worth noting that this Buriram side came in a massive 20 points behind Bangkok United in the Thai League in 2016.
But Polking believes that JDT could be more motivated than ever as they seek to put an end to a poor run on Thai soil.
"That could play a small role," he said. "Every game is different and, for sure, they want to win as much as we do. Johor plays in a very clear and structured system, so in one game anything is possible. But at the same time we are very confident that we can go to the next round."
On Saturday, Mario Gomez's side always looked vulnerable in defence, and will have to tighten up against the formidable attacking talents of the Bangkok Angels.
Last season, Dragan Boskovic scored an incredible 20 league goals from midfield, while Macedonian playmaker Mario Gjurovski pitched in with 12. Bahrain international striker Jaycee John netted 19 times, and he is likely to be partnered by former Buriram forward Gilberto Macena, who joined Polking's side midseason in 2016.
The Thai side have added Portuguese centre-back Yohan Tavares to beef up their defence. Polking confirmed that preparations for the game have been going according to plan, with defender Mika Chunuonsee the only injury concern.
"Preparation is going very well, and we still have two weeks to be at our top level of fitness," said Polking. "Mika is still struggling a bit, but will probably be ready for the game."
Overall, JDT have to be disappointed with their showing in Buriram. New Argentinian attackers Brian Ferreira and Gonzalo Cabrera contributed little, so they will have to raise their games considerably in the next two weeks. Skipper Safiq Rahim stood out as JDT's top player, and Marlias had a fine match in goal. But they will need more support from their teammates to earn a positive result in a fortnight's time.
Bangkok United's forward line may be very dangerous, but they can have off days at the back. Last season, they conceded 12 goals in the first five league games before tightening up. Gomez and his coaching team will now have to work hard to find a weakness before the big game at Thamassat Stadium.
JDT kick off their 2017 Malaysia Super League campaign against Kedah FA on Friday, and follow up with a game against Felda United the week after. These two matches should help the Southern Tigers sharpen up before they travel to Thailand.
The Thai League does not start until mid-February. But Bangkok United will have a challenge of their own next week when they face Japanese champions Kashima Antlers and Yokohama F. Marinos in the J.League Asia Challenge Interleague Cup.
Bangkok United may have been more encouraged by JDT's poor performance on Saturday. However, they should face a different proposition in a fortnight from a side who will desperately be trying to avoid history repeating itself with another continental disappointment in Thailand.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK