JDT prove their progress in Champions League defeat

Forget the national team – and with results of late, most would probably be happy to do just that – the pride of Malaysian football at the moment is Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT). 

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Just a few short months ago, the Malaysia Super League (MSL) champions won the AFC Cup and on Tuesday, they returned to Asian competition and gave Muangthong United a mighty battle in the 2016 Asian Champions League playoff.

The match eventually went to the hosts in a penalty shootout after 120 minutes had failed to provide a goal.

Before the game (Gomez) talked of the need to compete and he got his wish. This was a more streetwise version of Johor

But the opposition was the second best team in the best league in Southeast Asia and included a fair percentage of the Thailand national team –the region's standout side – and it went all the way into extra time and penalties.

Though United ran out deserved winners in the end, this was an encouraging performance for a team still learning continental ways.

Perhaps the AFC Cup campaign makes a difference, perhaps it is the coach, perhaps it is the players or a combination of all these and more. What is for sure is that JDT have grown.

The memory of Bangkok Glass was definitely in the minds of fans who made another journey north. Once again, the road to Asia started on the outskirts of the Thai capital, but this was different.

Almost exactly a year ago JDT lost 3-0 to a team regarded as clearly inferior to Muangthong. The Malaysians just did not compete, did not give a true account of themselves. If the same happened again then it would have been a depressing way to start the MSL season.

Instead, the Southern Tigers can go home with heads held high.

With Shanghai SIPG, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Asamoah Gyan, Dario Conca, Elkeson and goodness knows who else waiting in the next playoff, it is unlikely that JDT would have gone all the way to the tournament proper.

So this was about experience, pride and seeing how far the team has come and there were many positives to take, in contrast to a year earlier when there were none, except perhaps relief that there would be no Asian Champions League campaign as the team was obviously not ready.

JDT captain Safiq Rahim in action

If you lose so heavily to a team that is far from the best in Thailand then what chance do you have against opposition from China, Japan and South Korea?

But 12 months on, from the very start, the Southern Tigers showed their teeth. There was going to be no rolling over this time. There was aggression, desire and no small ambition.

Before the game coach Mario Gomez said that there would be no 90-minute long demonstration of desperate defending. JDT attempted to get forward at every opportunity and, especially in the early stage when they had the upper hand in midfield, they were causing the hosts problems.

In one key moment Jorge Pereyra Diaz should have done better than pass when the goal was at his mercy.

The second half was more stressful for the animated Gomez. Early on a Negrao header was ruled out, rightly offside, and then soon after JDT ‘keeper Farizal Marlias’ feet denied Thitipan Puangchan in what was the clearest opportunity of the game.

And when Cleiton Silva missed an even better chance, after a scintillating counter, then it looked as if it could be Johor's night.

In the end it wasn't though, losing 3-0 in a penalty shootout. While it was a little anti-climatic from the visitors' point of view, it’s better than 3-0 in an actual game.

At the end, Gomez looked satisfied. Before the game he talked of the need to compete and he got his wish. This was a cleverer, more streetwise version of Johor. They slowed the game down when needed and goalkeeper Farizal – who was so impressive that he deserved all the headlines despite the fact that opposite number Kawin saved all three penalties -made himself public enemy No.1 with some time-wasting.

Some of it was timely, from the Malaysian viewpoint coming as it did, when the home fans were really starting to get behind and lift their team. Down went the ''keeper, down sat the supporters and down went the tempo. It may not have been pretty but it was effective and, coupled with a number of super saves, the goalkeeper bore the brunt of the frustrations.

Apart from the penalties the downside was perhaps the fact that there were a few times that the team got in good positions without making enough clear chances. In the final third, the players seemed hurried and the Argentine boss could be seen many times performing the universal gesture that means 'calm down'.

Perhaps with a little more minutes under the belt of the 2016 team, it would have been different but then Muangthong could say something similar. Then again Johor don't have the benefits of the hosts' close arrangement with BEC Tero Sasana that enabled the quick transfer of three players last week –including Chanathip Songkrashin, one of Asia's brightest young talents who did enough to show that he will be a fan favourite at Muangthong.

With the demotion of Paulo Rangel and missing another foreign striker, the Malaysians were a little short of firepower, but that won't always be the case.

For the first game of the season it is encouraging and compared to the events of 12 months ago, Johor have matured and did themselves and Malaysia proud.

In Thailand there is a new respect for JDT and Malaysia and perhaps next year, if there is another meeting, it will be third time lucky.

ALSO: Click here for our full match report and to hear from both coaches

Photos: JDT