FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan assesses if Becamex Binh Duong could actually see off PSM Makassar and reach the ASEAN Zone final of AFC Cup 2019.
At the start of AFC Cup 2019, even the most ardent of Becamex Binh Duong fans would not really have fancied their chances of going far.
Drawn in Group G alongside 2017 ASEAN Zone winners Ceres-Negros, Indonesian giants Persija Jakarta and former Myanmar National League champions Shan United, it certainly looked a tough task even to finish in the top two and hope to advance as the best runners-up.
But that is exactly what Binh Duong did, claiming a final-day victory over already-qualified Ceres to finish second in their group and pip Tampines Rovers on goal difference by a solitary strike to be the ASEAN Zone’s fourth and final semi-finalists.
AFC Cup 2019: Becamex Bình Dương 1-0 PSM Makassar – Nguyễn Tiến Linh (80’)
Considering how they did it against the odds, then perhaps last Wednesday’s 1-0 win over PSM Makassar in the first leg of the zonal semi-finals should not come as any surprise.
Despite having Nguyen Trung Tin sent off in the 50th minute, the V.League 1 outfit not only held their Indonesian opponents at bay but then went on to claim the win courtesy of Nguyen Tien Linh’s fine 80th-minute header.
Binh Duong are a club with plenty of history – having thrice competed in the AFC Champions League before – but have not won their domestic league since 2015, having been surpassed by the likes of Hanoi FC and Quang Nam.
Even in terms of international representation, they only had one representative – Nguyen Anh Duc – in the most recent Vietnam squad while Hanoi, also through to the ASEAN Zone semi-finals, had seven players called up.
So, just how have four-time V.League 1 champions – who even had a change in coach earlier this year – reached this far on the continental stage?
For one, they actually have a fine blend of experienced campaigners, foreign imports and up-and-coming talents forming the first team.
Le Tan Tai may be 35 now but he was once one of Vietnam’s best players and continues to offer plenty, as he showed with a visionary pass to assists Tien Linh’s winner last Wednesday, while 33-year-old Anh Duc remains a potent threat in the penalty box.
Then, Wander Luiz and Victor Mansaray have not only been able to find the back of the net regularly but are also capable of rising to the occasion, as the former showed with his audacious 45-yard lob in the 88th minute that handed his team that win over Ceres.
Meanwhile, right-back Ho Tan Tai and winger Tong Anh Ty – who both turn 22 this year – have been steady performers, while Tien Linh is brimming with talent even if he may currently be restricted to cameos from the bench.
Nonetheless, could they complete the job on Wednesday at the Pakansari Stadium, against a PSM side posing many threats of their own?
While the Liga 1 outfit have been one of the competition’s most-exciting sides this season, they do have certain obvious avenues.
Despite him wearing the No. 10 jersey, Marc Klok actually initiates proceedings in a deep-lying role and also does his defensive duties well.
Restricting Klok’s influence goes a long way in keeping PSM at bay, which probably explains why Binh Duong opted for the more defensive-minded Nguyen Trong Huy to partner Tan Tai in the engine room last week.
Then, although Wiljan Pluim stands at 1.94 metres tall, the Dutchman actually does his best work with the ball at his feet but still possesses plenty of power, meaning whoever comes in to replace Trung Tin will have a big job on their hands.
Also, Guy Junior was preferred to as the focal point of the PSM attack last time out but, given they now have a deficit to overturn, coach Darije Kalezic may resort to the towering Eero Markkanen, which could necessitate Binh Duong’s usage of Veniamin Shumeyko alongside Ali Rabo in the heart of defence.
The Pakansari Stadium may not have been anything close to being filled in the AFC Cup this year but, given how Indonesian fans are renowned for their passionate support, Binh Duong will also have to be prepared for a hostile atmosphere on Wednesday.
Granted, they have already beaten former ASEAN Zone champions Ceres last month, although their opponents had little to play for on that day.
Should Binh Duong get the job done against PSM, it could just be their biggest scalp yet in what has already been an impressive AFC Cup 2019 campaign.