JDT draw on indomitable spirit again for another thrilling win over Ulsan to stay in AFC Champions League hunt

For the second season running, Johor Darul Ta'zim pulled off a thrilling 2-1 victory over Ulsan Hyundai to stay firmly in the hunt for a knockout-round berth in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League. Asian Football Confederation

It wasn't nearly as thrilling -- and it certainly wasn't as pivotal in terms of a make-or-break victory.

But as Johor Darul Ta'zim evoked an uncanny sense of déjà vu on Tuesday with a dramatic 2-1 win over Ulsan Hyundai in the AFC Champions League, there can be no denying that it could be as important as last year's triumph over the same opponents with the exact scoreline.

Last April, in the final match day of the 2022 edition of Asian football's premier club competition, JDT forced a dramatic 94th-minute own-goal to finish top of Group I and advance to the knockout round for the first time.

Fast forward a year and a half, there are still two games to go before this season's group stage concludes and yet, anything less than three points on Tuesday at Sultan Ibrahim Stadium would almost have left the Southern Tigers with an insurmountable mountain to climb -- with Kawasaki Frontale and Ulsan ahead of them and only the group winners guaranteed to advance.

Instead, while Kawasaki are still leading the way with a perfect record of four wins thus far, JDT are right back into the mix as they moved level on six points with Ulsan and very much in the running to at least give themselves a shot of advancing as one of the six best-placed runners-up.

While the East Asia Zone of the ACL has long been dominated by the Japanese, South Korean and Chinese clubs, JDT have come a long way since their tournament debut just four years ago and can no longer be as pushovers on the continental stage.

Nonetheless, they arguably still enter ties against such more-experienced opposition as the underdogs so there should be no underplaying how impressive a result another win over Ulsan on Tuesday was.

Once again, the Southern Tigers showed plenty of endeavour and determination to grind out the win especially considering -- even with the home advantage -- they conceded the possession stakes with 44.8% to Ulsan's 55.2%.

Despite having less of the ball, JDT looked eager to threaten the Ulsan goal at every opportunity and they duly got the breakthrough through Heberty's superb 20-yard drive a minute before halftime.

Yet, when Ataru Esaka equalised for the visitors in the 69th minute and the game gradually trickled towards the final whistle, it did look as though the Southern Tigers would be denied.

Then, with three minutes remaining, Akhyar Rashid -- who has never exactly been able to force his way into the starting XI but always finds a way to have an impact off the bench - applied the finishing touches to an electrifying counterattack that began with a brilliant save down the opposite end from Syihan Hazmi to snatch maximum points for JDT.

It is no secret that the ACL is now the big one for them.

Of course, domestic success is still expected but they have now won the last ten Malaysia Super League crowns on the trot, often sewing up the title with several games to spare.

With all due respect to their local challengers, no one is currently close to their level and it looks like that will be the case for the foreseeable future.

Now, reaching new heights in Asia is the new barometer of success for the Southern Tigers.

And as their indomitable spirit came to the fore once more on Tuesday, they are very much still in the hunt in the 2023-24 ACL campaign.