JDT coughed and spluttered, but stayed alive. So can they win another AFC Cup?

Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) are in the AFC Cup knockout rounds for the third year running, but it wasn’t smooth sailing this time around. FourFourTwo looks at seven key factors in their attempts to repeat their 2015 heroics, when they became the first Southeast Asian side to win the continental title.

1. Comparing the coaches

For starters, the Southern Tigers have a new man in the dugout, one who recently gave credit to club owner Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim – the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president – for all of JDT’s success.

Not either of the club’s previous coaches Bojan Hodak and Mario Gomez – the man who tactically outclassed Istiklol in their own backyard in the 2015 AFC Cup final.

Mora has changed the club’s tactical play – after orders from above – but that has yet to make the club look like a well-oiled machine on the pitch

Benjamin Mora, who was swiftly promoted from JDT II into the top-tier after JDT’s shock move to part ways with Gomez on the eve of the 2017 season, said: “JDT coaches only need to put in a little effort because most of the work is done by the management to achieve success.”

After a slow start, the Southern Tigers once again top the Malaysia Super League (MSL) standings and it could be Mora’s saving grace as it has been a mixed start to the Mexican’s tenure.

JDT have already relinquished two trophies they won in 2016, suffering a penalty shootout loss to Kedah in the season-opening Sultan Ahmad Shah Cup and falling short against Pahang in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. It is still unclear if the club will take the Malaysia Cup seriously this year unlike 2016 as that could depend on their AFC Cup campaign.

Mora has changed the club’s tactical play – after orders from above – but that has yet to make the club look like a well-oiled machine on the pitch despite establishing a six-point lead atop the MSL.

Mora has yet to win over all of his critics

2. Quality of imports

JDT have made it a policy to snap up a bulk of the best players in the country. This approach hasn’t really changed in 2017 despite letting go the likes of Safee Sali, Amri Yahyah, Nazrin Nawi and Jasazrin Jamaluddin.

Yet there is no denying the foreign players have played a huge role in the club’s success since 2014.

Luciano Figueroa was the heartbeat of the JDT side in 2015, but he has since retired. Jorge Pereyra Diaz was a perfect replacement, but he got shipped away as the club felt he got too big-headed towards the end of 2016.

Fans will remember Figueroa fondly

This season’s signings – Gonzalo Cabrera, Brian Ferreira and Jeronimo Barrales – have all failed to provide the missing spark on a consistent basis.

Gabriel Guerra, who was swapped with Barrales in February, has filled some of the void but those around him will have to raise their game if JDT are to repeat their 2015 feat.

One only needs look at JDT’s semi-final defeat to Bengaluru last year to see the importance of the imports, when they struggled without suspended duo Juan Martin Lucero and Diaz.

3. Their missing Singaporean

Amirul Hadi Zainal has been fielded in an unfamiliar defensive role, Shakir Saari is getting some game time again and Afiq Fazail is giving Safiq Rahim more room to roam, but Singaporean skipper Hariss Harun is the missing piece in JDT’s midfield puzzle.

Argentine Ferreira, who now takes the Asian import slot by virtue of having an Iraqi passport, is struggling to even make the starting line-up and is looking like a poor piece of business, especially considering Hariss is still on the club’s books.

Hariss was initially sent on loan to CE L'Hospitalet in Spain but he was forced to return barely a month later after his intended new club found out it was unable to sign players due to an existing tax issue.

Hariss is currently a Protector, not a Southern Tiger. Pic: Home United

He is now on loan with Home United in the S.League and is expected to return to Spain in for pre-season training in June, but JDT may need his services instead.

Hariss’ potential return would mean less game time for Afiq, but would add some valuable experience for JDT’s AFC Cup campaign if they navigate past Ceres in the Zonal Semi-Finals.

[NEXT: The West vs the Rest and that slice of luck]