For the second time this season in the AFC Champions League group stage, Johor Darul Ta'zim's away journey ended with a 2-1 defeat. Having lost to Kashima Antlers in the opening game of Group E by the same scoreline, it was deja vu for JDT, this time losing out to China's Shandong Luneng.
Just like it was in Japan, JDT allowed the opponent to go two goals in front before settling down and started to play their own game. And for the second time, the recovery and comeback came a little too late for the 2018 Malaysia Super League champions and they are left still searching for their first point away from home.
Without Benjamin Mora who is currently undergoing his AFC Professional Diploma course, Jorge Alvarez took charge of proceedings in JDT's clash against Shandong and he made bold decisions with the starting line-up. Nazmi Faiz was brought into central midfield while Aidil Zafuan took the place of the suspended Adam Nor Azlin in defence.
The Southern Tigers held their own in the opening period despite handing Shandong the lion share of the ball possession. As expected the Chinese Super League side tried to take advantage of the aerial ability which they possess through the likes of Graziano Pelle and Marouane Fellaini but for a short while, JDT coped well with the constant crosses.
The first sign of danger came in the 17th minute when Fellaini was allowed to drift inside the box and he calmly control a cross while holding off S. Kunanlan at the same time. However, the big Belgian's subsequent was well blocked by Mauricio dos Santos.
A World Cup third place finisher with Belgium at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Fellaini will make amend for his initial miss in the 30th minute when he glanced a header at the near post beyond Farizal Marlias from a corner kick to put Shandong 1-0 ahead. La'Vere Corbin-Ong stuck close to Fellaini but lacked the strength to put the tall midfielder out of his place.
Then came a mistake from one of the most experienced heads in the team as Aidil allowed Pelle to turned him inside the box. Missing with his overhead kick, Aidil knew he had little choice but to tuck Pelle back by grappling his leg and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. Pelle dusted himself off and converted the penalty, even though Farizal did manage to guess the right way.
Shandong came out swinging at the start of the second half and could have added to their lead in the 47th minute when Jin Jingdao latched onto Fellaini nod-on but the impressive Farizal spread himself well to block Jingdao and keep JDT in the game.
JDT who had done very little to trouble Wang Dalei in Shandong's goal in the first half, knew that they had to up their game or risk staring at a big defeat on the road. To their credit, JDT responded well with Diogo Luis Santo starting to have an influence on the game and Safawi Rasid started seeing more of the ball.
It wasn't long before the deficit was cut in half and it came from a very familiar source. Receiving the ball on the right hand side, Safawi mirrored what Arjen Robben would normally do by cutting in to his favourite left foot and then thundering an immaculate shot into the top corner to make it 2-1.
Aware of the danger that the away team possess, Shandong started dropping men behind the ball and instead of pushing for the third goal, started to ensure that their lead is kept intact. It meant that JDT saw a lot more of the ball but conversely, also found it a little bit more difficult to break down Shandong's defence.
The opportunity did arose in the last minute of the match, the clock was showing the fourth minute of added time. A free kick just outside the penalty box was awarded to JDT and Gonzalo Cabrera step up to take the responsibility. It was an agonising moment for Cabrera and the rest of the JDT team as they saw his incredible effort bouncing back off the cross bar and cut short JDT's comeback.
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