Having dominated the domestic circuit for close to a decade and after capturing a historic AFC Cup in 2015, Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta'zim went into the 2020 season with their sights trained on a new target: the AFC Champions League -- which is as grand as it gets in Asian club football.
Having had a first taste of the tournament in 2019, they were expected to up their continental game last season. That is exactly what they did by beating former champions Suwon Samsung Bluewings 2-1 in their second group tie -- only to see the season brought to a standstill by the coronavirus pandemic.
They missed the restart in Qatar last November after the Malaysian government declined to clear the team for travel as cases of coronavirus spiked in the region. The forced withdrawal from the competition overshadowed even their achievement of a 7th consecutive Malaysia Super League title.
As a new season beckons with the Super League slated for a March 5 kick off and the group stages of 2021 AFC Champions League beginning on Apr. 21, we take a look at how the Southern Tigers have been preparing for a fresh campaign and assess their chances in the two competitions.
Can the new signings fill the void left by Diogo?
That will be the question on everyone's mind as JDT challenge the big guns of Asian football in 2021. JDT acquired 29-year-old Jonathan Herrera in January as a like-for-like replacement for star Brazilian striker Diogo Luis Santo who returned to Thailand after two years at Johor Bahru.
Diogo was a permanent fixture in JDT's attack since signing from Buriram United ahead of their debut Champions League campaign in 2019 and scored the club's first-ever goal in the ACL group stages. The Brazilian also netted 16 league goals from 32 appearances en route to winning the Super League in both his seasons with JDT.
Herrera, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity locally, but has raked in truckloads of goals across the lower tiers of Argentine football. The fans at Sultan Ibrahim Stadium will hope to see him emulate the streak. He should feel right at home at Johor thanks to the presence of compatriots Leandro Velazquez and Gonzalo Cabrera in the squad.
Another major coup for JDT during the break has been the signing of Gambia-born Malaysia international winger Mohamadou Sumareh, who will further compensate for Diogo's loss. The 26-year-old joined the Super League winners following a short stint in Thailand with Police Tero after leaving Pahang in August due to a salary dispute.
Add to that the return of the electrifying Safawi Rasid from a short European sojourn with Portugal's Portimonense, and the Southern Tigers are spoiled for choices up front. Re-signing former captain Safiq Rahim from Melaka United and capturing Danial Amier from FELDA United will also bolster the midfield, while the defence looks as strong as ever.
So, what can we expect from the Southern Tigers in 2021?
The Malaysia Super League title should once again be a walk in the park for Mora's men and it would require a collapse of gargantuan proportions for Johor to not capture their eighth-straight title. But that is not to say the 2021 domestic season in Malaysia is going to a drab affair.
This season will be the first after the Football Association of Malaysia implemented its plan to privatise clubs to develop a sustainable football ecosystem. Most visible changes of this shift will be seen in team names and crests as they move from state-affiliated FAs (Football Associations) to privately-run FCs (Football Clubs). Whether the move will end JDT's monopoly in Malaysia, however, will only be evident in the years to come.
The expanded 40-team Champions League is of course a different ball game for JDT. One of the six ASEAN sides to get a direct group stage entry, Johor have been pooled with China's Jiangsu FC, Japan's Nagoya Grampus and the winners of the playoff between Thailand's Ratchaburi Mitr Phol and South Korea's Pohang Steelers in Group G.
Jiangsu return to continental action for the first time since 2017 as the Chinese Super League champions and will be the favourites to win the group with the likes of former Inter Milan stars Miranda and Eder in their ranks. But, JDT will sense an opportunity to squeeze through to the knockout stages for the first time as runners-up behind the Chinese side.
After all, the Malaysians already have the experience of upsetting top teams from Japan and South Korea -- the then-defending champions Kashima Antlers in 2019 and Suwon in 2020. They will also fancy their chances against a fellow Southeast Asian opposition if Ratchaburi books a place in the tournament proper at the expense of three-time ACL winners Pohang.
A packed schedule being played out at a centralised location due to the pandemic might just be the perfect platform for JDT to write their name into the history books by becoming the first club from their country to secure a place in the knockout rounds of the AFC Champions League. Perhaps, the third time could indeed be the charm for Johor.