After last year's AFC Champions League high, Johor Darul Ta'zim have real battle on their hands to back it up

At the halfway stage of the 2023-24 AFC Champions League group stage, Johor Darul Ta'zim are currently third in Group I following Tuesday's 3-1 loss at the hands of Ulsan Hyundai. Asian Football Confederation

For so long the dominant force in Malaysian football -- as their ten consecutive Super League titles attest to -- Johor Darul Ta'zim are, in recent seasons at least, now determined to make their mark on the bigger stage that is Asia.

Over a year ago, they did just that - reaching the knockout round of the AFC Champions League for the first time after remarkably finishing top of a group that also consisted of continental heavyweights Ulsan Hyundai and Kawasaki Frontale, as well as undermanned two-time champions Guangzhou.

The last 16 was to be as far as the Southern Tigers would venture as they would subsequently be eliminated by eventual champions Urawa Red Diamonds yet, all in all, the campaign was viewed as a successful one by all accounts.

As the 2023-24 edition of Asia's premier club competition began last month, the goal for JDT was always to back it up at the very least.

As fate would have it, they were once again drawn alongside Kawasaki and Ulsan, with BG Pathum United the new faces in an otherwise familiar quartet.

At the halfway mark of their campaign, JDT have plenty of work on their hands as they sit third in Group I with one win and two defeats to their names -- following Tuesday's 3-1 loss to Ulsan.

For most teams hailing from Southeast Asia, who are still generally some way off from being at the same level as their counterparts from Japan and South Korea, there would have been no shame in losing to the likes of Ulsan and Kawasaki while also claiming a creditable win over BGPU.

But JDT are not any ordinary ASEAN outfit.

As they proved last year, they are now capable of matching it with the best sides in the competition's East Asia Zone and -- in some way a double-edged sword -- the fact that they did so last term means they expectations now are that they can do so on a regular basis.

All is not lost for the Southern Tigers. With three games still to play -- including two at home -- there is every bit a chance that they can at least finish inside the top two and give themselves hope of advancing even if it is not as one of the guaranteed group winners.

After failing to net in their opening loss to Kawasaki, Bergson da Silva now has two goals in as many outings following his consolation effort against Ulsan and remains a perpetual goal threat at this level.

Meanwhile, the star of Arif Aiman - for some time now anointed as the bright hope of Malaysian football -- continues to rise. While his output was perhaps the only blemish on his record previously, he has addressed that with his best scoring season to date -- already netting twice in the ACL this term to add to the eight league goals he has bagged so far.

Elsewhere on the field, from Jordi Amat and La'Vere Corbin-Ong in defence to Juan Muniz and Afiq Fazail in the engine room, JDT have quality in almost every position.

They should be able to turn things around if they play to their potential.

Perhaps the biggest issue for them this season is the change in the ACL's schedule from one that used to align with the calendar year to a September-to-May format akin to European football.

Previously, their opponents faced the conundrum of juggling their commitments when the ACL group stage took place in the earlier parts of their respective domestic campaigns. JDT had the same issue too but it was almost always a foregone conclusion that they would canter to the MSL title at a breeze.

Now that the group stage of the ACL is in the latter part of the year, there are less distractions for some of the opposition.

That is most definitely the case for Kawasaki, who are 9th in the J1 League and out of the title running after a disastrous campaign, and perhaps needing to focus on going far in the ACL for redemption.

And while Ulsan are gunning for top honours in K League 1, they currently hold an eight-point lead with just four games remaining. Barring an almighty collapse, they should be able to still devote sufficient resources to their continental quest while doing enough to secure the domestic crown.

Whatever the case, JDT have a real fight on their hands if they are reach the round of 16 of the AFC Champions League this season -- yet, that was indeed the scenario as well in 2022.

If the Southern Tigers can get the job done for a second year running, it will be yet another statement that they truly do belong among Asia's elite.