Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) has been a powerhouse in Malaysian football for years, boasting ten consecutive Super League titles. However, in recent times, they’ve set their sights on conquering Asia’s biggest stage, the AFC Champions League. Their remarkable journey last year, where they reached the knockout round, sent a clear message – they are here to compete with Asia’s best. As the 2023-24 edition of the AFC Champions League unfolds, JDT faces another formidable challenge.
The 2022 Success Story
In 2022, JDT not only participated in the AFC Champions League but finished on top of a group that included heavyweights like Ulsan Hyundai and Kawasaki Frontale. Their impressive journey came to an end in the Round of 16, where they were eliminated by eventual champions Urawa Red Diamonds. Nevertheless, the campaign was deemed a resounding success.
The 2023-24 Campaign
As the 2023-24 season kicked off, JDT aimed to build on their previous success. However, the draw wasn’t kind, as they found themselves once again pitted against Ulsan and Kawasaki, along with newcomers BG Pathum United. At the midway point of the campaign, JDT sits third in their group, with one win and two losses, including a recent 3-1 defeat to Ulsan.
For most Southeast Asian teams, losing to the likes of Ulsan and Kawasaki while securing a victory over BG Pathum United would be considered an achievement. But JDT is not an ordinary ASEAN outfit. Their success in the previous season has raised the bar, and now the expectations are higher.
The Road Ahead
Despite their challenging start to the season, all is not lost for the Southern Tigers. With three games remaining, including two at home, they have a chance to secure a top-two finish, which would keep their hopes of advancing alive, even if it’s not as group winners.
Bergson da Silva, JDT’s striker, has demonstrated his goal-scoring prowess with two goals in as many games. Meanwhile, Arif Aiman, the rising star of Malaysian football, is having his best scoring season yet, with two goals in the AFC Champions League and eight league goals to his name.
JDT boasts quality in almost every position, from Jordi Amat and La’Vere Corbin-Ong in defense to Juan Muniz and Afiq Fazail in the midfield. If they can play to their potential, they have what it takes to turn things around.
The Challenge of Schedule Changes
One significant challenge JDT faces this season is the change in the AFC Champions League’s schedule. The tournament now follows a September-to-May format, similar to European football, rather than aligning with the calendar year as it did before.
Previously, JDT’s opponents had to juggle their commitments early in their domestic campaigns, making it almost certain that JDT would secure the MSL title comfortably. Now, with the ACL group stage occurring later in the year, some of their opponents have fewer distractions.
For instance, Kawasaki is currently 9th in the J1 League and out of the title race. They may need to focus on the ACL to salvage their season. Ulsan, on the other hand, has a comfortable lead in K League 1, and they can dedicate resources to both their continental quest and domestic aspirations.
The Road to Proving Their Elite Status
In 2022, JDT proved they can compete with Asia’s best. In 2023, they face a renewed challenge with higher expectations. If the Southern Tigers can secure another successful campaign and advance to the Round of 16, it will be a testament to their status among Asia’s elite football clubs. Despite the obstacles, they are determined to continue their remarkable journey on the continental stage.
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