It was a night to remember at Tan Sri Dato Haji Hassan Yunos Stadium on May 8 2019 as JDT etched another milestone in the history of Malaysian football by becoming the first ever Malaysian team to win in the AFC Champions League group stage.
To do it in front of their home fans against a team of the pedigree of Japanese club side Kashima Antlers who are also the reigning champions of the competition after they triumph last season, only serves to add to the incredible journey that The Southern Tigers have taken in Asia's elite club competition.
Slowly but surely JDT are making their presence felt in Asia with every passing match. A historic first ever goal was scored in the first Group E match away to Kashima back in February, which was quickly followed by the first ever point earned by a Malaysian club in the competition when they held Korean side Gyeongnam FC on match day two.
The solitary Syafiq Ahmad goal in the second half, expertly crafted by the young forward, was enough to condemned Kashima to their second consecutive defeat in the group stage after a similar loss suffered at the hands of Gyeongnam on the previous match day.
In all the five matches that JDT have played in the competition thus far, they have more than shown that they do actually belong at this level. Shandong Luneng, Gyeongnam and now Kashima have all faced difficulties in their respective matches against the five-time Malaysia Super League champions and things can only get better from there.
Unlike the previous match against Shandong where Benjamin Mora and his coaching staff elected to prioritise a then forthcoming match against Pahang and fielded a much-changed side against the Chinese Super League side, this time around the big guns were recalled to the starting line-up.
With Leandro Velasquez not avaiable for the ACL and Diogo Luis Santo suspended for the match, Mora had to call upon Nazmi Faiz and Syafiq into the fold and what a response he had from the two players as JDT set about dominating proceedings right from the kick-off.
That said despite the dominance, Kashima still managed to create dangerous opportunities but Aidil Zafuan rolled back the years to produce an oustanding performance at the heart of JDT's defence while Izham Tarmizi was victorious in his duels against Sho Ito as well as Leo Silva.
Captain and talismanic central midfielder Hariss Harun was in his element and the Singaporean was a shining beacon for JDT in the engine room. He was tireless in his efforts and mopped up where he was required, constantly offering himself for the pass to be the first to set JDT on the attacking path.
Influential Safawi Rasid had one of his quieter games but his ability on the ball still caused Kashima plenty of worry while winger Gonzalo Cabrera kept the ball well, often times using his quick feet to get himsefl out of tight situations. Only poor final decisions kept JDT from making an earlier impact on the game.
When the defining moment of the match did come in the 69th minute, it was the combination of the aforementioned Nazmi and Syafiq that had Kashima on the back foot. The former threaded the ball for the latter and in one swift move, Syafiq showed just why he was coveted by JDT last season with an accurate and composed finish beyond the dive of Kwoun Sun-tae in Kashima's goal.
The win as well as Shandong's victory over Gyeongnam in an earlier match, opened up the group and gave JDT a fighting chance of reaching the Round of 16. With four points on the board now, JDT will need to win away to Gyeongnam on the final match day and hope that Shandong reciprocate with a win over Kashima.
On a day when the UEFA Champions League served up a reminder that nothing is impossible in football, a similar albeit different scale of shock was seen in the AFC Champions League. Who's to say The Southern Tigers can't continue to confound expecations on May 22 when they take to the field at Changwon Football Center.
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