Johor Darul Ta'zim FC had their share of early season struggles this season in the Malaysia Super League. They had to grind for wins over the newly-promoted duo of UiTM FC and PDRM FA and were also held by now-relegated FELDA United.
But the Southern Tigers team returned to the field after a five-month break because of the COVID-19 pandemic and was an altogether different beast. They had secured a record seventh consecutive league title in emphatic fashion with six wins from seven -- the only blip being a 2-2 draw against PJ City FC.
No one has come close to challenging the Southern Tigers since Selangor FA came within three points in the 2014 title race.
While JDT have remained a fixture at the summit of the standings over the years, no one team has emerged as a consistent challenger. Selangor and Pahang have finished runners-up twice each since 2014, while it was Kedah and Perak who were playing catch-up in the race this season.
The chances of them closing the gap on JDT in 2021 are slim, but there is hope for the sport in the country as Malaysia takes a step towards creating a self-sustaining football ecosystem by privatising all clubs affiliated to the Malaysia Football League.
There is skepticism as the state football associations try to transform their teams into proper football clubs without losing the identity built over the decades. Despite the initial confusion, the hope is that the move could lift Malaysian football to a new level.
Johor thrive while the rest of the league crumble
While it was JDT who took all the plaudits for the title and for booking a place again in the 2021 AFC Champions League, FELDA and PDRM were the big losers failing in the relegation battle while Sabah FA survived for another season in the top flight.
While the Cops immediately return to the second-tier Malaysia Premier League after a single season in the Super League, FELDA are set to disband their team -- following the likes of Felcra FC and PKNS FC who have had their names erased from the domestic circuit in recent years.
The race for the sole AFC Cup 2021 slot was won by Kedah who overcame Perak 3-2 in what was essentially a second-place playoff in the final round. Perak had come back from 2-0 down, but Renan Alves scored the winner for the Red Eagles making them the first Malaysian side in that competition since 2018.
Can JDT win the AFC Champions League?
The East Zone of ACL is slated to resume in Qatar on November 18 to decide which club from this side of Asia will face Iran's Persepolis FC in December's final.
After collecting only four points from their debut campaign in Asia last season, JDT already registered a win in 2020 -- a 2-1 defeat of South Korea's Suwon Samsung Bluewings at the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium on Matchday 2 just before the pandemic halted the event.
That win came as a huge confidence booster for Johor, especially after a morale-wrecking 5-1 loss at the hands of J1 League side Vissel Kobe in their opening match. But Benjamin Mora will be aware such scorelines could repeat if his men are not at their best when taking on Asian football's top clubs in Qatar.
JDT were almost guilty of being starstruck as Andres Iniesta pulled the strings for Vissel last February, and there will be the likes of Elkeson and Paulinho waiting for them when they face perhaps their biggest test of Group G in two-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande.
"Being a dominant team in the domestic league, we need to progress and make a breakthrough in international events such as ACL," head coach Mora was quoted as saying recently. "However, it is not easy as many teams have been fighting for years to achieve success in ACL."
But with years of domestic dominance now under their belt, progress in Asia will be the next challenge for the undisputed kings of Malaysia.