After last season's historic feat, Johor Darul Ta'zim now have to bounce back from early AFC Champions League exit

Johor Darul Ta'zim were eliminated from the 2023-24 AFC Champions League on Tuesday with a game still to play after defeat to Kawasaki Frontale meant they can no longer hope to finish in the top two of Group I. Kenta Harada/Getty Images

Last season, Johor Darul Ta'zim made history of themselves and all of Malaysian football when they reached the round of 16 of the AFC Champions League -- Asia's premier club competition -- for the first time ever.

Just over a year on, they will now have to overcome the setback of following up on that monumental achievement with a premature exit this term.

A heavy 5-0 defeat away to Kawasaki Frontale on Tuesday means the Southern Tigers can no longer progress from Group I, even with a game still to play.

While there is a mathematical possibility they could finish level on nine points with second-placed Ulsan Hyundai, they cannot overtake the South Korean outfit due to an inferior head-to-head record.

Having lost 3-1 to Ulsan in their initial encounter before claiming a 2-1 victory when they met again, JDT will basically miss out by a solitary goal conceded at Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium back in October should both teams indeed finish with identical records in a fortnight's time.

The failure to emulate last season's run to the knockout round, or at least be in with a chance going into the final day, will be a bitter pill to swallow.

But a setback can also be a beneficial situation.

And for all the strides forward they have made over the past decade, this early exit from the ACL can come as a much-needed reminder that there is still higher levels the club can -- and should -- be striving towards.

After all, having won the past ten Malaysia Super League titles, a challenge for JDT is not going to arrive on the domestic stage -- at least for the time being.

Instead, it is on the continental front where they will really continue to test themselves, especially coming up against some of Asian football's traditional powerhouses.

The ACL draw in the past two years also has not been kind to JDT.

Twice in a row, they were pitted against heavyweights Ulsan and Kawasaki while BG Pathum United -- the fourth team in Group I this term -- are far from pushovers even if they have performed well below expectations.

Should the Southern Tigers beat BGPU in their final outing on Dec. 12 and finish their campaign with three wins from six matches, it would still be a creditable showing overall.

Of course, at JDT, being decent is not quite enough -- not when the ambition to be among the continent's leading lights has been stated so clearly on numerous occasions.

There will be time for JDT to lick their wounds and regroup but, before that, there is the small matter of finishing up their commitments for 2023, which includes a Malaysia Cup final against Terengganu on Dec. 8 that could see them secure the domestic treble for a second successive year.

Hardly a bad season's work and yet, there is a feeling their failure to go further in the ACL will cause almost as much pain as the relief winning all three domestic trophies will provide.

Fortunately for JDT, even with the transformation of the ACL to the AFC Champions League Elite next season, which will result in a reduced 24-team tournament, JDT will still be present with Malaysia retaining one automatic spot.

Much of that has been down to own good work of the Southern Tigers, whose performances have raised Malaysia's standing in the AFC's club competition rankings.

Yet, repeated failures to make it further than the group stage could eventually see them drop out of the top-tier competition.

Now that would be a significant step backwards for JDT. This season's group-stage exit isn't.

This is just a minor step backwards.

And, as the Southern Tigers hope will be the case, sometimes a small step back is needed in order to take two steps forward.