Tricky ACL route: Johor Southern Tigers. It may not quite be mission impossible, but Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta’zim will need to negotiate a treacherous qualification route to achieve their dream of AFC Champions League (ACL) football.
Tuesday’s Asian draws saw the 2015 AFC Cup winners placed in a relatively benign group for the 2017 edition. But they still hope to earn their place in the continent’s top competition, the ACL.
At the same time as the draw at the Petaling Jaya Hilton, JDT’s Australian sporting director Alistair Edwards was in Thailand, lining up a January 14 friendly with south-east Asian powerhouses, Buriram United, to prepare them for their January 31 preliminary round ACL tie away to Thai runners up, Bangkok United.
If they get through that, they will then need to win away from home against J League opposition on February 7, just to earn the right to play alongside the likes of reigning champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Jiangsu Suning, of China, and Australia’s Adelaide United, in Group H.
It is the ultimate ambition of JDT’s big-spending owner to see his club make a mark on the biggest Asian stage. The Crown Prince of Johor, better known as TMJ, has guided the Southern Tigers to seven trophies in his four seasons in charge, but competing with the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande and Al Ahli would require a massive learning curve.
“TMJ has made no secret that we will continue to aim for ACL qualification,” former Perth Glory manager Edwards told ESPN FC. “The philosophy at JDT is about continuous improvement, with the main objective to compete regularly in the coveted ACL.”
Buriram United, who played in the ACL in the last five seasons, have the same ambition. So, with Thailand hot favourites to beat Indonesia in this week’s AFF Suzuki Cup final, Buriram and JDT are exploring ways of working together to help south-east Asia’s top clubs bridge the massive gap with the region’s elite.
JDT have raised eyebrows with their ability to attract top South American talent in recent years, like Argentine attackers Luciano Figueroa and Jorge Pereyra Diaz, and Brazilian defender Marcos Antonio, who’s played in the Bundesliga. But, they are still a rung below the calibre of talent attracted to China, with Chelsea star Oscar the latest big name eyeing a mouth-watering payday in the Chinese Super League.
“Buriram United share a similar objective to us, so we are discussing ways of raising the bar even further in south-east Asian club football, with the desire and vision that we both can regularly compete in the ACL,” Edwards said.
“We have taken a first step in establishing a broader relationship that will bring the expertise and experience of both clubs together.”
Having won the last three Malaysia Super League (MSL) crowns, JDT have strengthened their squad with yet more talented additions, including Selangor’s Ahmad Hazwan Bakri, now considered to be the best striker in the country. They are tweaking their four foreign players, but it is unlikely that their 2017 imports will be any less lethal than those from the 2016 season, when Diaz and countryman Juan Martin Lucero combined for a staggering 34 goals.
But the reinforcement of Malaysian players in their squad should make a difference in regional competitions. Last season, when both Diaz and Lucero were suspended, JDT lost 3-1 in the second-leg semi-final against Bengaluru FC, to bow out 4-2 on aggregate. Clearly, coach Mario Gomez doesn’t want to be so reliant on his foreign forwards for 2017, hence the signing of Hazwan, along with his former Selangor teammate Nazmi Faiz, and other rising stars.
Even getting to the final ACL preliminary round game in 2017 would mark a sign of progress for JDT. For the last two years, they’ve fallen at the first hurdle to Thai opposition, most painfully losing on penalties last year to Muang Thong United.
For JDT to travel to Japan, after winning in Thailand, would be a watershed moment for the Johor club. An indication of the J-League’s quality is the fact that Kashima Antlers won two games at the FIFA Club World Cup to earn a place in the final.
JDT’s 2015 triumph in the AFC Cup was, without doubt, a breakthrough for south-east Asia, after a combination of gritty performances, helped by some generous doses of luck. They seemed dead and buried after losing 3-1 to Al-Qadsia in the semi-final, first leg, only to progress to the championship match when the Kuwaiti side were ejected from the competition due to their nation’s ban by FIFA.
Even so, it will be an anti-climax if JDT fall short of their ACL target and end up in Group F of the 2017 AFC Cup where trips to Philippines, Myanmar and Cambodia would be in prospect.
Very quickly, the ambitious and impatient Johorians have outgrown games against less-than-intimidating south-east Asian opposition.
Jason Dasey is Singapore-based senior editor of global football website ESPN FC. Twitter: @JasonDasey
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