Johor Darul Ta'zim can make up for lost time in AFC Champions League

Since arriving at the start of the season, Bergson da Silva has emerged as Johor Darul Ta'zim's main man in attack and is currently their top scorer in the Malaysian Super League on 11 goals. Johor Darul Ta'zim FC

For a club who made their debut in Asia's premier club competition just two years ago, it's strange to think that Johor Darul Ta'zim is looking to make up for lost time when they get their 2021 AFC Champions League campaign underway on Tuesday.

But for an ambitious team looking to reach the pinnacle of continental football now, the next two weeks could prove to be pivotal after a 2020 that reeked of missed opportunity.

Having won the past seven Malaysia Super League titles, JDT have been the dominant force domestically. Making an impact on the Asian stage, especially after Malaysia was awarded an automatic group-stage berth in the ACL from 2019, was always going to be the next step.

Expectations were tempered in their maiden campaign and yet they managed a creditable four points from six group games, including a historic 1-0 win over then-champions Kashima Antlers in May 2019.

Last year was meant to be a chance for them to back it up and show they belonged in the big time. After an impressive 2-1 win over Suwon Samsung Bluewings in their second match, there was every chance the Southern Tigers would at least improve on the previous year.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic escalated, bringing the competition to a halt. When play finally resumed in November, travel restrictions imposed by the Malaysian government meant JDT were unable to travel to the centralised competition venue of Qatar, resulting in their withdrawal.

As JDT prepare to return to the ACL -- starting with Tuesday's Group G clash with Japanese outfit Nagoya Grampus in the host city of Bangkok -- they will look to prove they can match up against Asia's best teams.

And if fate had been the one that robbed them of that opportunity last season, it has also played an equally influential role in giving them the best chance they have had so far to reach the knockout round.

The proverbial "luck of the draw" has drawn JDT alongside Nagoya, Pohang Steelers of South Korea and Thailand's Ratchaburi Mitr Phol.

Granted, the former two hail from traditional powerhouse nations of the continent but, as clubs sides, are neither seasoned campaigners nor their respective countries' leading contenders, unlike a Kawasaki Frontale or Ulsan Hyundai.

The Southern Tigers have already proven against Kashima and Suwon that they are capable of pulling off an upset.

Meanwhile, tournament debutants Ratchaburi are probably on a more even footing with JDT talent-wise but do not boast the experience the Malaysian club possesses.

Ratchaburi could follow in the footsteps of Buriram United and Muangthong United by flying the Thai flag in the competition yet they have made more headlines in recent days for signing a local celebrity on a six-month contract to bolster their squad for the ACL. JDT, meanwhile, can look to a settled squad that has largely been kept together for many years now barring the odd departure.

They will be missing the combative presence of ex-captain Hariss Harun after his transfer to the Lion City Sailors but they can welcome back star attacker Safawi Rasid following his loan spell in Portugal with Portimonense, while 19-year-old Arif Aiman will offer an injection of youthful energy.

It is by no means a foregone conclusion that JDT can produce their best-ever showing in the ACL and perhaps advance out of the group stage for the first time.

Yet, at least unlike last year, they will get the opportunity. More importantly, they look like they have the hunger to do so.