Without Johor Darul Ta'zim stars, Malaysia's AFF Championship campaign is one with positives despite semifinal exit

Malaysia's 2022 AFF Championship ended on Tuesday with a 3-1 aggregate loss to Thailand in the semifinals although there were plenty of positives for Harimau Malaya throughout the campaign. SPORTFIVE

Despite entering Tuesday's AFF Championship semifinal second leg with a one-goal aggregate lead, a heavy 3-0 loss to reigning champions Thailand at Thammasat Stadium ultimately saw Malaysia bow out of the tournament.

The result itself is an improvement considering the Malaysians suffered a disappointing group-stage elimination at the previous edition of Southeast Asia's premier international competition.

While the wait to add to their sole AFF triumph in 2010 goes on, the fact that they managed to return to the knockout round less than a year on from the appointment of South Korean coach Kim Pan-gon is a step in the right direction.

Even more so considering they had previously qualified for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup last June for the first time ever, with their only other appearance in 2007 coming by virtue of their status as co-hosts.

Nonetheless, perhaps the most positive aspect of Harimau Malaya's recent displays at the AFF Championship is the fact that they did all of that without a single player from local powerhouses Johor Darul Ta'zim -- apart from Safawi Rasid, who was available for selection as he is currently on loan to Thai League 1 outfit Ratchaburi.

For so long now, JDT -- who have won the past nine Malaysia Super League titles -- have been capable of luring the best Malaysian players to join their ranks. As a result, the Southern Tigers have consistently made up the foundation of the national team and its starting XI.

A new stance by JDT owner Tunku Ismail Idris to only release players for international action taking place on official FIFA calendar dates -- with the AFF Championship not taking place in such a window -- thus robbed Malaysia of star names such as Arif Aiman, Farizal Marlias and Akhyar Rashid.

This meant that the squad Kim had at his disposal was one severely lacking in experience with not a single member boasting 50 caps prior to the start of the tournament, while 17 of the 23 players called up all with less than ten international appearances to their names.

To address this dearth in seasoned campaigners, Malaysia did add naturalised duo Lee Tuck and Ezequiel Aguero to their ranks -- although only the former was a regular starter with Darren Lok preferred to the latter in attack.

The return of Selangor captain Brendan Gan was also a welcome addition in the engine room following his successful recovery from cancer that robbed him of an entire year of competitive action.

Yet, from the adversity that came from being without some of their bona fide stars, it allowed others to rise to the occasion and prove they can also offer Harimau Malaya plenty -- even if they are not playing for the biggest club in the land.

Coming off the back of a sensational season with Terengganu, Faisal Abdul Halim emerged as a genuine game changer for the Malaysians at the tournament, English-born Stuart Wilkin showed an ability to chip in with goals from midfield, while Quentin Cheng, V. Ruventhiran and Sharul Nazeem all proved they could be viable options in defense moving forward.

Malaysia will undeniably be a stronger side when they welcome the JDT contingent back into the ranks, especially in the build-up towards the Asian Cup.

But as they have shown over the past three weeks or so, they also have plenty of other talent that have combined for an overall positive outing at the 2022 AFF Championship.