BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Pahang are through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, despite losing 2-1 in their second-leg quarter-final match against Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT). Although Argentines Gabriel Guerra and Gonzalo Cabrera managed to put the homeside in front on aggregate in the first 20 minutes, it was all undone by Gambian forward Mohamadou Sumareh's late header.
JDT boss Benjamin Mora made a gamble in their mid-week AFC Cup group match against Boeungket Angkor, fielding a mostly second-string side. That gamble paid off with the Southern Tigers cruising to a 3-0 win, which meant that Mora could field fresh key players against Pahang. Mora fielded all his foreign players save for Argentine midfielder Brian Ferreira. Wing back Azrif Nasrulhaq was pushed up to play in front alongside Guerra and Cabrera. He opted for an all-local midfield lineup in Amirulhadi Zainal, Safiq Rahim and Afiq Fazail, with Marcos Antonio, Kunanlan Subramaniam, Fazly Mazlan and Fadhli Shas the defenders protecting Izham Tarmizi's goal.
Pahang head coach Dollah Salleh meanwhile fielded the tried and tested, making little change to the squad that won the first leg 3-1 at home. His goalkeeper Wan Azraie Wan Teh, defenders Matthew Davies, Faisal Rosli, Heo Jae-won and Afif Amiruddin, with Wan Zaharulnizam Zakaria, Ahmad Syamim Yahya, Nor Azam Abdul Azih and Sumareh as midfielders. Joseph Kalang Tie and Matheus Alves were paired up in front at the start of the match.
The home side needed only six minutes to reduce the aggregate deficit. They made the possession they dominated from kickoff count, when skipper Safiq Rahim released Cabrera with a flicked through pass. The Argentine had no trouble slotting the ball into the bottom corner past Azraie, who could do little to keep out the shot.
The Tok Gajah could have restored the two-goal deficit five minutes later when Jae-won connected with a corner kick with a header, but Izham never took his eyes off the ball and palmed the dangerous effort out.
In the 17th minute Pahang midfielder Syamim was brought down by a studs-up tackle from behind by Afiq, and had to receive treatment off the pitch. Strangely enough, referee Zulkifli Ahmad kept his cards in his pocket.
The defending champions finally took the lead on aggregate in the 23rd minute, through their other Argentine forward Gabriel Guerra's goal. Azrif dispossessed Zaharulnizam near the Pahang penalty area, before sending a through pass to Guerra, and the Argentine struck the ball into the far bottom corner with his first touch.
Guerra's technique was perfect, but it was the Malaysia international's tenacity that led to the goal. He had actually lost the ball just before making the inch-perfect through pass, but when most attackers would concede possession to drop back and join the defending, Azrif immediately pressed Zaharulnizam to regain possession of the ball. and succeeded.
Throughout the first half an hour of the match, it was evident that JDT have recaptured what was missing from their performance in the first leg. They did not play too badly at the Darulmakmur, but in that match they had turned off their intensity. At Larkin, they chased after every ball and marked every single Pahang player closely. As a result, the visitors could rarely string a few passes together, and get the ball over the halfway line.
However, JDT were not impenetrable. The few times that Pahang got into the final third, they managed to come close to finding the back of the net. Just before halftime, Davies got a touch to a cross from the right, but Pahang were again denied by Izham's alertness.
The first half ended 2-0, with Pahang never looking like the same side that produced the first leg 3-1 win.
Four minutes into the second half, Guerra was tackled by Afif in the Pahang penalty box, but the referee waved play on despite the defender having missed the ball completely.
Both sides made their first substitution after the half hour mark, with Mora bringing on Azamuddin Akil for Kunanlan who was injured, and Dollah taking off Joseph for Ashari Samsudin and Zaharulnizam for Devasagayam Christie Jayaseelan.
Their away-goal advantage lead was precarious, but the Tigers took their foot off the pedal, determined to defend the lead.
Dollah threw on Nurridzuan Abu Hassan for Syamim as Pahang's last substitution in the 81st minute, and what a substitution it would prove to be. In the 88th minute, Nurridzuan squared the ball from the left, and Sumareh connected with the delivery with a header, and this time the try beat Izham.
JDT failed to find the equaliser despite the fourth official allowing six-minutes of injury time following a needless altercation minutes after Pahang's goal, and the Elephants are through to the semis, against Premier League leaders Negeri Sembilan.
JDT : Izham (GK), Fazly, Fadhli, Antonio, Kunanlan (Azamuddin 62'), Safiq (C) (Nazmi 75'), Amirulhadi, Afiq, Cabrera, Guerra, Azrif.
Pahang : Azraie (GK), Davies (C), Zaharulnizam (Christie 69'), Syamim (Nurridzuan 81'), Faisal, Jae-won, Joseph (Ashari 65'), Afif, Azam, Sumareh, Alves.