Having just won the AFC Cup Club of the Decade award, Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) will be inspired to face Japan’s Vissel Kobe in the AFC Champions League today.
On Sunday, JDT, winners of the 2015 AFC Cup, came out tops ahead of Iraq’s Air Force Club and Kuwait’s Qadsia SC in an online poll by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Six-time Super League champions JDT aim to make an impact in Asia with a good account of themselves against Kobe in a Group G opening match at the Misaki Park Stadium.
However, Kobe, powered by Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta and former Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen, look too strong for the Johor side.
World Cup winner Iniesta, who also has four Champions League medals and nine La Liga titles, is still a great player at 35.
And earlier this year, there were reports that Barcelona were trying to sign him again. Last week, Iniesta inspired Kobe to victory over Yokohama Marinos in the Japanese Super Cup.
Known as Barcelona’s pass master when he was at Camp Nou, Iniesta will be out to stretch the Southern Tigers thin with his probing play.
JDT midfielders Hariss Harun and Natxo Insa will have their hands full keeping the Spaniard in check.
At the other end, JDT forwards Diogo Luis Santo, Gonzalo Cabrera and Safawi Rasid will get to test the steely Kobe defence marshalled by former Gunner Vermaelen.
On the eve of the match, a cautious Vermaelen did not predict victory over JDT.
“We’re not looking at a certain target, like we have to win it or anything,” he said.
“We have to take it game by game and see where we can get.”
But the Belgian sounded confident when he added: “We won the (Japanese) Super Cup, so we have to be confident. If we can beat the champions of Japan (Yokohama Marinos), then you can be confident going into the AFC Champions League as well.”
Imposing as Iniesta and Co may be, JDT will not lack confidence.
For Benjamin Mora’s men had taken on the best and won. Last year, in their debut, the Southern Tigers shocked
Kashima Antlers 2-1, the Asian reigning champions then, in Johor Baru.
Safawi said: “JDT have been preparing and training for the AFC Champions League. We aim to give a good show against the elite teams of Asia.”