Hodak: JDT will show true prowess
Despite slow start, JDT coach believes they can beat LionsXII
Their squad list reads like a who's who of Malaysian football, with more internationals than any other Malaysian Super League (MSL) side.
Their foreign contingent also features players who plied their trade in Europe before arriving across the Causeway, and midfield stalwart Hariss Harun is the prized capture from Singapore.
Moneybags Johor Darul Ta'zim are the favourites to retain the MSL title.
Yet, after six rounds, they are fourth in the league standings, tied on 11 points with four other teams, with just three wins under their belt.
JDT, who take on the LionsXII tonight in a tasty clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium, may have hardly shown championship form, but their coach Bojan Hodak is hardly fazed.
"Pressure? No, I don't feel any pressure," he confidently told The New Paper at yesterday's training session.
"You can say we have the strongest team in the league, but everyone has played six games so far, we have played 12 (in all competitions, including the AFC Cup)."
The mixed bag of results in the past two months has already seen two foreign signings replaced.
Argentine pair Luciano Figueroa and Jorge Pereyra Diaz, who terrorised the LionsXII in last season's 3-2 victory at Jalan Besar, have made way for playmaker Pato Rodriguez, also from Argentina, and Sierra Leone striker Alhaji Kamara.
"The (slow start) was down to the performance of the two foreign strikers," Hodak said.
Diaz went six games without scoring, while Figueroa had only two goals.
"Both of them were not focused during pre-season, and Diaz was unhappy because he wanted to leave for a Brazilian club," Hodak added.
New signing Pato, 24, who once played alongside Neymar at Brazilian club Santos, has already made a big impact for his new club, providing two excellent assists in JDT's 2-1 win over ATM last week.
"Pato is attractive to watch, good in one-on-ones and can shoot," Hodak said. He still needs to improve on things like defending and teamwork - that's why he's not playing in Europe right now. But for the MSL, he is very good."
Pato is expected to start on the left tonight, with Kamara in attack, supported by experienced Malaysian international Safiq Rahim in the playmaker's role, with Amri Yahyah posing danger on the right flank.
Singapore dynamo Hariss, who played just 33 minutes in JDT's last fixture, has fully recovered from injury and will start.
But Hodak said the midfield powerhouse may deputise at centre back to fill the void left by Brazilian defender Marcos Antonio, who is suspended.
The Croatian coach, who led JDT to the title last year, was impressed with the LionsXII during their 2-0 FA Cup victory over JDT II on Wednesday.
"I never underestimate my opponents, but I am confident we can win tonight," said the 43-year-old.
"The LionsXII have tactical discipline and patience - two things no other MSL side have.
"On paper, we are favourites to win, but the LionsXII don't allow anyone to play like favourites on their home ground."
Hariss, 24, is one Johor player looking forward to playing on the artificial Jalan Besar pitch.
Now in his second term with the Malaysian side, the Singapore vice-captain has enjoyed a good start to the season, starting in all but two games, and he is looking forward to facing his old teammates, some of whom won the 2013 MSL title with him.
"This is the first fixture I look out for at the start of the season," he said.
"It's great to come back and play at Jalan Besar, and I'll enjoy the moment just like I did last year.
"But, we have a job to do and three points are crucial right now because the league is so tight."
“Pato is attractive to watch, good in one-on-ones and can shoot. He still needs to improve on things like defending and teamwork — that’s why he’s not playing in Europe now. But, for the MSL, he is very good.”
— Johor Darul Ta’zim coach Bojan Hodak on his new Argentinian star Pato Rodriguez
BY THE NUMBERS
Johor Darul Ta'zim are unbeaten against the LionsXII at Jalan Besar Stadium. They have played there four times since 2012 (as Johor FC), drawing twice and winning twice.