BY OOI KIN FAI Follow on Twitter
Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) succesfully navigated through the first stage of the Asian Champions League (ACL) qualifier for the first time after three attempts after defeating Bangkok United (BUFC) on penalties on Tuesday evening. A magnificent achievement for the Southern Tigers who are now rewarded with another difficult tie, this time against favourite Japan's Gamba Osaka for a place in the group stage of the 2017 ACL.
Having suffered exits at the hands of two Thai teams in the previous two years, the penalty shootout win against yet another Thai team is something to savour for the reigning Malaysia Super League champions. Goal looks back on a remarkable night for JDT and pick out the talking points from their progression to the playoff stage.
The much-maligned Fadhli Shas had a season to forget last year as he spent most of his time warming the bench of JDT. His inclusion in the national team for the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup on the back of that also received much criticism. Having achieved so much so early in his career, one worries that Fadhli could have plateaued despite only being 26 years of age. The centre back was rarely called upon by Mario Gomez last year but looked to have a change of fortune in 2017.
Benjamin Mora did not have the services of Aidil Zafuan and in the past, that would have meant a centre back role for either Junior Eldstal or Hariss Harun, both of whom are predominantly midfielders. However Mora chose to give the slot to Fadhli and the result speak for itself. In a match that saw JDT being on the back foot for big parts of the game, Fadhli had to be on the top of his game to help JDT repel BUFC's attacks.
If Fadhli can return to form and be the player that was a mainstay in the national team, not only as a squad player but as a definite starter, it also augurs well for everyone related. JDT would have a player back in confidence and would be able to rotate throughout the season and the Malaysia national team would have another good option in defence.
To be clear, Amirulhadi Zainal is not the same quality as Hariss Harun at this point in time and perhaps, may never be until the day he retire from professional football. However, Amirul's performance in the match against Bangkok United goes a long way to ensure that JDT will not be fretting the absence of the Singapore international for the upcoming season.
The winger turned central midfielder was in his element yesterday. Deployed in a more defensive role compared to his midfield partner in Safiq Rahim, Amirul provided the right shield to his defence. His ability to read the game allowed him to cover and mop up whenever one of the nominal defenders that JDT had, was out of position. Not to be overlooked is also his willingless to commit fouls whenever necessary to break up the rhythm of the home team.
Injuries has blighted his progress at JDT but if Amirul can maintain his fitness, there's no reason why he can't establish a formidable partnership with Safiq. Coincidentally, both players came up the ranks in Selangor and in a way, has been playing together for a big part of respective footballing careers.
Breaking the mental block
It would not have been easy to been drawn against another Thai team after the two demoralising defeats in as many years. What previous matches against Bangkok Glass and then Muang Thong United would have shown JDT is that they still have a few more levels to go before being able to match undeniably teams from the strongest league in this region.
Which is why the win over BUFC, be that through penalty shoot-out is so important to the make up and perception of a Malaysian team and in particular, JDT. A win that should tell this JDT side that they are more than capable of mixing it with the big boys and should not be timid in their approach when coming up against such strong teams.
Getting past this stage hopefully can be the catalyst for the natural progression to the next stage which is the elite of Asia in Japanese, Koreans and Chinese teams; at least within the East region of the competition. So JDT must continue to push on and aspire to bridge this new gap.