Johor Darul Ta'zim can still prove they've made progress despite early ACL exit

Having entered the 2021 AFC Champions League campaign with high expectations, Johor Darul Ta'zim have already been eliminated with two games still to play. Thananuwat Srirasant / Power Sport Images

Having had their hopes of making their mark in last year's AFC Champions League ruined by the COVID-19 pandemic, Johor Darul Ta'zim had to wait 16 months to feature again in Asia's premier club competition.

Within the span of ten days, their quest to prove they belong amongst the continent's elite -- by at least reaching the Round of 16 -- is over, after suffering three defeats in four Group G games.

Two dead rubbers, starting with tonight's match against leaders Nagoya Grampus, are all that remain for the ambitious JDT, so can they still salvage anything from this ill-fated campaign?

For one, progress can come in many ways, including purely by the numbers, so bettering their haul of four points from 2019 would be a start.

They already have three to their name following a 1-0 win over fellow Southeast Asian outfit Ratchaburi Mitr Phol, who they meet again on Wednesday in their final continental outing for the year.

Another victory there would at least prove that, while they still have ground to make up with the best of the continent, they are at least bettering the rest that their neighbouring countries have to offer.

But considering their two previous triumphs before this season were stunning upsets of Kashima Antlers and Suwon Samsung Bluewings, perhaps just seeing off Ratchaburi would not suffice.

They could do with producing a statement against the currently undefeated Nagoya. And if it is not going to be a win, as that will be a tough ask, it can at least come in the form of a strong display.

Which was exactly what JDT did on the opening day of the campaign, when they more than matched the Japanese giants and looked to have salvaged a draw in the dying moments before Bergson da Silva's late equaliser was controversially disallowed.

That performance, which was followed by the triumph over Ratchaburi, was what gave hope that this would be the Southern Tigers' year to venture further that they ever have on at this level.

Then came two defeats against Pohang Steelers.

The most recent 2-0 loss was one of those days where their opponents were just better than them.

Yet, the earlier 4-1 defeat, where JDT conceded three penalties in an uncharacteristic capitulation, was nothing short of an aberration, one that left coach Benjamin Mora understandably fuming.

It must be remembered that for all the strides the Malaysian Super League champions have made in recent times, this is only their second full season playing in the ACL.

Progress has come in the form of how their locally-produced young guns like Arif Aiman have shown no signs of being overawed by the occasion, with the 19-year-old winger looking like he belongs at this level.

And progress can also come in the form of how well they bounce back from disappointment, something they are not exactly familiar with given their dominance on the domestic front, and finish off the campaign by giving an overall positive account of themselves.

They can certainly start the redemption process against Nagoya tonight.