Comment: Malaysian clubs should aim to dominate the AFC Cup

The AFC Cup can suffer in comparison to its more esteemed big brother, the Asian Champions League. But John Duerden argues it's a tournament Malaysian teams could dominate...

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There is something special about international competition. The Malaysia Super League (MSL) is the nasi lemak/roti canai/char koey teow/bread and butter of football in the country. But sometimes you need to take your family for something a little different – a bit of Thai, plenty of Vietnamese, some Singapore noodles or even dishes from further afield.

If you progress in the tournament there is the chance of facing strong sides from West or Central Asia

Only when you go abroad can you really get a sense of what Malaysian food really is and where it stands.

Football is the same and that is why the start of another AFC Cup is welcome. It also means that we can finally say the Malaysian season has started. We've had two rounds of the league and the FA Cup is getting going, but only when there is some continental action can we really feel that football has returned.

It has taken the tournament some time to gain traction around the continent. This is partly because it is very much seen as the JDT II to the JDT that is the Asian Champions League. It is the same issue the Europa League faces.

There, though, the biggest football nations do actually participate in the Europa League, so when the likes of Japan, Korea and Australia don't even enter the AFC Cup, it is obviously going to suffer a little in comparison with its bigger brother.

That is not something for Selangor and Johor Darul Ta’zim to worry about. Best to concentrate on and appreciate what the AFC Cup is, rather than focus on what it is not.

Whatever the competition, representing your country on the international stage is a privilege as well as an adventure.

It is beneficial for the players to enjoy regular tests against overseas opposition. It is especially great as even the group stages offer some non-ASEAN action. With all the regional competitions, it can be tough for players to experience competitive games against full professionals from outside.

In the group stage, non-ASEAN action may consist of just opposition from the Maldives, Bangladesh and India. But that isn’t to be sniffed at and if you progress in the tournament there is the chance of facing strong sides from West or Central Asia.

JDT hosts Ayeyawady United this week in what is a good opportunity for three points, despite the Southern Tigers’ busy schedule. Yet coach Mario Gomez and his players should take the visit of the Myanmar team very seriously indeed.

JDT celebrate last year's AFC Cup triumph. Photo: WSG

For the holders, Wednesday's home match needs to result in three points and act as a statement to the rest of the participants that the trophy will not be given up without a fight. As well as the win, it is about building a reputation for talent and ruthlessness.

The message coming out of the Ayeyawady camp is that the trip to the Larkin Stadium is both exciting and scary. This is how it should be, at least in the eastern half of the draw.

The best Thai and Vietnamese teams are in the Asian Champions League and their absence gives Malaysian sides an opportunity to establish themselves as the premier powers of the eastern zone.

In Southeast Asia at least, a trip to Malaysia should be seen as one that sorts out the men from the boys. Just as the visitors are a little worried about their game this week in Johor, so should every other club that has to make that trip.

Ayeyawady have experience in the competition but should be no match for the stars that stud the squad of the Malaysian champions.

Selangor have a much harder task, on paper at least. Travelling to take on Ceres is a tricky opener for the Red Giants. The Philippine team boasts plenty of internationals, including German-born midfield trio Manuel Ott and new boys Stephan Schrock and Kevin Ingreso. All have plenty of European and Southeast Asian experience and the recent recruits will be keen to impress.

Throw in a foreign contingent with a Korean/Spanish flavour, a longish trip, a longer injury list and a record of poor away results in the competition and it all adds up for what can be politely described as a challenging trip for the 33-time Malaysia Cup winners.

There are reasons to be optimistic. Selangor have started solidly with four points from the opening two games in the league, including a hard-fought draw at JDT, and then a comfortable FA Cup victory over Air Asia at the weekend.  There has to be a hunger to do well to follow the Southern Tigers onto continental glory.

Also in both teams’ favour. Selangor and JDT possess something lots of clubs in Asia don’t: lots of supporters who can create intimidating atmospheres. The Philippines league is a gentle affair in that regard and in other countries, there are only a handful who come close to matching a full Larkin or Shah Alam Stadium in terms of sights and sounds. If the fans can get behind their heroes, great things could happen.

It's all part of the fear factor. It is great to try new flavours of football and expand Malaysian football horizons but the time has come for MSL giants to achieve consistent success in the AFC Cup and show that 2015 was no fluke.

Malaysian clubs have to become the ones to beat and the ones to fear, at least in the eastern zone of the tournament. JDT and Selangor are the best that the Malaysia Super League has at the moment, and it is now time to prove that to the rest of Asia.

Main image: Selangor FC