Hectic schedule leaves JDT's Southern Tigers panting for breath

Johor Darul Ta'zim suffered a potentially costly 1-1 draw at home in this week's AFC Cup quarter-final first leg against South China. Ooi Kin Fai looks into how much the Southern Tigers' schedule may have played a part...

During Chelsea’s 2014-15 Premier League-winning season, in the month of January they played no less than eight matches, suffering an embarrassing 5-3 defeat to Tottenham and crashing out of the FA Cup at the hands of lowly Bradford City over that hectic stretch.

In Malaysia, Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) faced the same amount of matches this August, culminating in a disappointing 1-1 draw at home in the first leg of their AFC Cup quarter-final against South China of Hong Kong on Tuesday.

JDT’s run started with a win over Sarawak on August 1, just 25 days prior to the AFC Cup match. That span is in fact six days shorter than the period it took Chelsea to complete the same number of games.

The crunch AFC Cup fixture also came just three days after the Southern Tigers clinched the Malaysia Super League crown, but there was little time for celebrating ahead of such an important contest.

Things were going to plan when JDT’s Luciano Figueroa converted from the penalty spot two minutes into the second half in Johor. But Mahama Awal’s 64th equaliser means JDT now face an uphill task to become the first Malaysian side to advance to the competition’s semi-final stage.

Hopes were high after JDT were drawn against South China as they had beaten Kitchee FC earlier in the competition, a side that finished the 2014-15 Hong Kong Premier League season as champions, nine points above fourth-placed South China.

JDT coach Mario Gomez made three changes to a line-up that laboured to a 3-1 defeat to Felda United on the weekend. He was forced to do without Aidil Zafuan, who had formed a solid partnership with Marcos Antonio, but needed a rest after only recently returning to fitness.

Like JDT, Chelsea overcame a hectic schedule to win their domestic league title

To their credit, South China played the game smartly, knowing they would have the upper hand in terms of fitness. In contrast to their lethargic opponents, the last competitive match for the team known as the ‘Shaolin Temple’ was way back on May 30, an AFC Cup playoff against Hong Kong outfit Dreams.

That gave them three months to prepare for the showdown with JDT and former South China coach Gomez.

At the 2014 Suzuki Cup, JDT captain Safiq Rahim was part of the Malaysian side that made it all the way to the final. But that team was constantly labelled “70 minute players” due to their incredible drop in performance beyond the 70th minute of matches.

Thus considering their recent schedule, it was no surprise Safiq was among a host of players on the JDT side that had no more energy in the tank to raise their game to help the Southern Tigers secure a first leg lead.

After the match Gomez acknowledged the strain the recent schedule had taken on his players, but was far from giving up hope about the return leg.

“We have played eight games in 25 days and after 70 minutes the players were tired. And that is the truth,” he said. “I knew South China would chase everything and it was difficult for us when we were physically not so good.

“Now it’s a case of resting and working for the return leg. We must do some work and I think we can win in Hong Kong.”

JDT made a strong start and were unlucky not to find a breakthrough in the opening half. But there was no doubt South China were in control in the final quarter of the match.

With a 21-day break until the second leg on September 15, JDT at least now have a chance to recover and can still make history by progressing. But perhaps it’s time local organisers took a closer look at offering the right help to clubs in order for them to succeed in these continental competitions.