In the end, the fact that Kashima Antlers came from a goal behind to snatch the all-important 2-1 win over Shandong Luneng in the other Group E match meant that Johor Darul Ta'zim would not have qualified for the Round of 16 even if they had beaten Gyeongnam FC at the Changwon Football Center on Match Day 6 of the 2019 AFC Champions League group stage.
As it turned out, Gyeongnam were the slightly better side on the day and won through goals from Luc Castaignos (65') and Takahiro Kunimoto (90+4') to seal a 2-0 win. But just like JDT, Gyeongnam will play no further part in the competition as they could only finished third in the group behind Kashima.
JDT ended up bottom of Group E with only four points gained but in their debut outing in the ACL, this was nothing to be ashamed about. The Southern Tigers lose four matches to Kashima (away), Shandong Luneng (home and away) and Gyeongnam (away) but earned an impressive win over the defending champions as well holding Gyeongnam to a draw in Johor Bahru.
In every single one of those matches, JDT not only held their own against supposedly better teams from countries at a much higher rung of the ladder than them. In every single one of those matches, JDT showed that they are capable and deserved to be rubbing shoulders with the bigger boys of Asian football.
Missing Safawi Rasid due to suspension and Leandro Velasquez due to inavailabilty meant Benjamin Mora was forced to call upon Akhyar Rashid and Syafiq Ahmad as their replacements in the starting line-up. While Syafiq continued the industrious form he showed in that win over Kashima, Akhyar's was largely anonymous in the arguably one of the biggest match of his budding career.
Which goes to show that despite his undeniable talent, Akhyar still has much to learn and need to mature in his game if he is to fulfill his potential. While Akhyar could be forgiven for being inexperienced to shine at this level, the same cannot be said of Gonzalo Cabrera who just could not produce the same level of quality that he keeps showing in the Malaysia Super League (MSL).
Diogo Luis Santo led the line well but the lack of support from his team mates meant the big Brazilian had to drop deeper and deeper to influence the game, which left a giant gaping hole in attack which JDT failed to cover. Another of the senior players who shone on the night was the ever consistent Hariss Harun but he also had to spend a lot of time covering for an out-of-sorts Afiq Fazail.
Mauricio dos Santos' presence in defence kept JDT's backline intact and it was his departure early in the second half which meant Gyeongnam were able to capitalise during a set piece that saw the towering Lee Kwang-seon winner a header that opened up the chance for Castaignos to break the deadlock.
Hindsight is always 20/20 and JDT could perhaps look back at the campaign with a tinge of regret. The 1-1 home draw against Gyeongnam could easily have gone the way of JDT and gave them two extra points. A poor Shandong was there for the taking at Larkin but the preference to keep the usual first eleven fit and ready for a Pahang league match cost them a good chance for another win.
However at the present rate, JDT will be looking at a quick return to the ACL as they are currently 10 points ahead of Pahang in the MSL. And they will have to bring with them the experience gained from this first campaign. A clear and subjective analysis of their matches at this level and assessing the weaknesess of the squad has to be made, and it does not appear to be a lot to be done
Over reliance on Diogo and Safawi for the goals must be adjusted to make the team more balance and harder for the opponent to counter. As good as Aidil Zafuan has been in recent months, his age is catching up with him and his effectiveness in the first 70 minutes of a match versus the final 20 minutes of a match can sometimes be very stark due to his declining fitness levels.
On the whole, JDT have undoubtedly sounded the warning board and sent out strong messages to the rest of Asia that they have arrived and with a couple of small improvements, will be offering even greater challenges to the status quo come the 2020 AFC Champions League season. For now they bid goodbye to the competition after having earned plenty of respect for how they have performed.
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