After highs of 2022, Johor Darul Ta'zim and BG Pathum United bow out of AFC Champions League in contrasting fashion

Although they failed to emulate last season's achievement of reaching the AFC Champions League knockout round, Johor Darul Ta'zim still depart with a commendable haul of nine points from their six outings in 2023-24. Asian Football Confederation

Having done admirably well to qualify for the knockout round of the AFC Champions League in 2022, both Johor Darul Ta'zim and BG Pathum United failed in their quest to do so again this season.

And that was even before this week's final pair of Group I matches.

But with JDT arguably able to depart the tournament with their heads held high, the same cannot be said for BGPU.

On Tuesday, despite trailing at halftime, the Southern Tigers - aided by BGPU being reduced to ten men shortly after the restart -- mustered a spirited fightback to claim a 4-1 win off the back of a Bergson da Silva double and late efforts by Endrick and Arif Aiman.

In many ways, the performance and result epitomised JDT's efforts in Asia's premier club competition this season.

They were far from perfect but they never stopped trying, which always gave them a chance of getting a result.

And with the perennial Malaysia Super League champions guaranteed a spot in next season's AFC Champions League Elite -- even when Asian football's top tier is reduced from a 40-team competition to just 24 clubs -- this year's travails will ultimately stand them in good stead.

After all, it was never going to be an easy route to the round of 16 from the moment JDT discovered their group-stage fate.

Two-time ACL champions Ulsan Hyundai. Japanese heavyweights Kawasaki Frontale. And quarterfinalists from last season in BGPU.

Granted, JDT also came up against Ulsan and Kawasaki in 2022 and somehow managed to finish top and be the only team from their group to advance to the last 16 for the first time ever.

Still, there was an element of luck in the way they did progress in dramatic fashion with the last kick of their final group-stage outing then.

Even then, it did not even come from one of their own boots as it was an own-goal from the luckless Park Yong-woo in the 94th minute that handed JDT the miraculous 2-1 victory they needed to snatch top spot at the expense of both Kawasaki and Ulsan.

Then, they finished with a haul of 13 points.

This time around, nine points - including yet another creditable win over Ulsan -- is hardly an embarrassing effort.

Instead, it is BGPU who should -- and likely will -- be taking a good hard look at themselves in the mirror.

With the 4-1 loss on Tuesday, the Rabbits ended their group-stage campaign with the ignominy of six straight losses.

An even more damning statistic is the 22 goals they let in for a -13 goal difference, coming just a year or so after becoming only the third Thai team to reach the last eight of the ACL.

In hindsight, perhaps they did enjoy an easier draw in 2022 as they topped a group that featured second-tier South Korean outfit Jeonnam Dragons and Philippine minnows Kaya FC-Iloilo, followed by a fairly straightforward last-16 tie against Kitchee of Hong Kong.

Nonetheless, BGPU boast a star-studded squad littered with Thailand stars such as Teerasil Dangda, Sarach Yooyen and Chanathip Songkrasin, who returned to Thailand from Kawasaki earlier in the year, although the club admittedly have not had the best of luck with injuries.

Even if they were always likely to finish behind both Ulsan and Kawasaki, the talent they possess should have been enough to pick up a win or two, or even a point at least.

And unlike JDT, BGPU are yet to secure their place in next season's ACLE -- with their ongoing Thai League 1 season not even halfway done.

That is why, while the Rabbits have plenty of soul searching as they seek redemption on the domestic front in the months ahead, JDT can at least bow out from this season's continental campaign with some creditable displays to build on ahead of a guaranteed return to top-tier Asian football in 2024.