Istiklol, Johor braced for historic clash

The AFC Cup trophy will have the name of a new winner engraved on it when Malaysian league champions Johor Darul Ta’zim and Tajikistan's tournament debutants FC Istiklol battle it out at the Republican Central Stadium in Dushanbe on Saturday.

Both sides trailed in their respective semi-finals against Kuwaiti outfits Qadsia SC and Kuwait Sporting Club, but when the Kuwait Football Association was suspended by FIFA on October 16, Johor and Istiklol were handed walkover victories.

As a result, for the first time in its history, the AFC Cup final will not feature a side from the Middle East. Additionally, Johor and Istiklol are the first sides from Malaysia and Tajikistan to reach the final of Asia's second-most prestigious club competition.

Johor is making their second appearance in the competition, but this year's event is in stark contrast to their 2009 campaign, where they managed to avoid defeat in only one of their group stage matches.

This time, though, they were victorious on five occasions in the group stage, while thrashing Myanmar’s Ayeyawady United 5-0 in the pre-quarters and South China 3-1 in the last eight.

Although they are playing in the AFC Cup for the first time, Istiklol is no strangers to continental cup finals, having won the 2012 AFC President’s Cup, but their run to Saturday's big match nevertheless came as a surprise.

Historically clubs from Tajikistan struggled in the competition and after Istiklol suffered a 3-1 loss to Iraqi side Arbil in their maiden home match in the event, few had high hopes of them progressing past the group stage.

However, they won their next seven matches, which included a victory over last year's winners Qadsia in the group stage.

In the quarter-finals they faced another Malaysian side, Pahang FA, and thumped them 4-0 in the first leg to all but secure their place in the last four.

Despite their defeats in the respective semi-final first legs, both sides go into the match confident of lifting the title for the first time.

"We (JDT) cannot rest on our laurels because we will have to work extra hard to be 100 percent fit and ready," Johor captain Safiq Rahim said.

"I have full confidence in the team to bring back the AFC Cup. I have a sense of belief in me and my teammates during this important moment."

"I believe the weather in Tajikistan will not be a problem since all the players are experienced and know how to prepare themselves physically and mentally."

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