Johor Bahru: A stern test awaits I-League champions Bengaluru FC when they take on reigning champions Johor Darul Ta'zim in the first leg of the AFC Cup semifinal at the Larkin Stadium, in Johar Bahru on Wednesday.
The Blues will be up against a dominant JDT side that only last week claimed their third Malaysian League title in a row – a feat they achieved without losing a game.
Earlier in the season, the Malaysian team won the FA Cup and the Charity Shield to make it three trophies in 2016 for the Mario Gomez-coached side.
"We know everything about the opponent. They deserve to be here and are a very strong rival. We are not scared about that. For us, it's a nice challenge and the aim is to put on a performance," said Bengaluru FC coach Albert Roca while addressing the press on Tuesday.
Johor are part of Bengaluru's history in continental football by being the Blues' first ever opponents in AFC competition when the two teams battled it out in the ACL qualifier at the Larkin Stadium early in 2015.
The Malaysian team didn't progress in the Champions League but went on to win the AFC Cup while Bengaluru bowed out at the Round-of-16 stage. This season the two sides met again, after being drawn in Group H with Johor winning both legs of the league stages to finish on top of the table while Bengaluru qualified for the knock-out stages by finishing second.
But much has changed for the Indian champions since then, who brought on Spanish coach Roca and shuffled the player roster too.
"Yes, we haven't beaten Johor yet but we've had two very close games and we can take positives from that. We are a stronger team now than when we last played them. We have a new coach, new systems, a few new players and it's all coming together. We go into every game wanting to score and win and Wednesday will be no different," said defender John Johnson, who has been with the Blues for three seasons now.
An interesting sub-plot to the game will be the battle between Bengaluru's defence and Johor's free-scoring Argentine strikers Martin Lucero and Pereyra Diaz.
In the attack, Bengaluru will look to be a lot more clinical in front of goal than they have been over the last two games.
Having progressed after playing out a 0-0 draw (1-0 aggregate) against Tampines Rovers in Singapore last week, the Blues chose to stay back and took a bus across the border to Johor.
But the Blues will still be without Udanta Singh, Lalchhuanmawia and Keegan Pereira (injury and illness).
"We do have a few injuries and unfortunately, those players cannot participate. But that is not an excuse as we have a good squad and we have to prove it tomorrow," said Roca.
The semifinal will be only Roca's third competitive game since taking charge but he is confident of the way the team has been responding to the change.
"We have tried to create a new philosophy and our team is improving. We are inching closer to the way we want to play. We know our limits, but we know we cannot sleep and we have to keep progressing as a team."