BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow onTwitter
Malaysia's two representatives in the 2017 AFC Cup, Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) and Felda United have undergone a reversal of fortunes in matchday four of the 2017 AFC Cup, played on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
On Tuesday, Felda recorded their first ever AFC Cup win, overcoming Philippines' Ceres-Negros 3-0 at the Shah Alam Stadium with a dominance performance.
The Fighters needed only six minutes to open the scoring through Syahid Zaidon, before Hadin Azman and Fazrul Hazli Kadri added their second and third goal in the match in the second half.
Whereas for the Southern Tigers, on Wednesday a disastrous lapse in concentration in the first half caused the visitors to concede three goals to Global FC within an eight-minute period. Gabriel Guerra then scored a brace for JDT in the second half, but they could not find the much-needed equaliser. The match ended in a 3-2 win to the Philippine side.
Felda's win took them to second in Group G with five points, three points behind leaders Ha Noi FC, while JDT's defeat caused them to be pipped to the top of Group F by Global.
The Fighters' reversal in fortune in the AFC Cup (and also the Malaysia Super League) can be credited to the appointment of former Malaysia head coach Bhaskaran R Sathianathan, in early March. They had earlier lost on the road to Singapore's Tampines Rovers, before drawing against Ha Noi at home and away to Ceres.
However, the cause of JDT's slip up is slightly harder to pinpoint. Head coach Benjamin Mora initially seemed to have successfully arrested their inconsistent performance just before the international break with a win against UiTM in the FA Cup and Global in their home fixture in the AFC Cup, but following the resumption of club football JDT have lost both of their matches, against Global on Wednesday and earlier against Pahang in the first leg of their FA Cup quarter-final tie.
The Southern Tigers had been in the driving seat in their AFC Cup campaign, defeating Cambodia's Boeung Ket at home, holding Magwe to an away draw, before defeating Global 4-0 at home, but they have now lost their supremacy in Group F.
In previous years, a second place is enough to take a team to the round of 16, but a change in this year's format has made qualification a lot harder. The three group winners in the groups participated by South East Asian teams; F, G and H will automatically advance to the South East Asian semis, with the remaining semi-final spot going to the best second-placed South East Asian team.
This means JDT and Felda may end up vying for the same spot, the qualification spot reserved for the best second-placed South East Asian team, along with the eventual second-placed team in the other South East Asian group, Group H.
In their remaining two group matches; Felda will face Tampines at home, before taking on Ha Noi in Vietnam. which means their chances of finishing first in their group are still in their hands.
However for JDT, they now have no other recourse but two win away to Boeung Ket at home, and defeat Magwe at home, while hoping that Global will slip up in their last two group matches.
It would be a major shock were Felda, who are making their first appearance in the AFC Cup this year, to advance to the next stage while JDT, the 2015 champions, fail to do so.