The start of the 2019 season saw JDT embarking on a new journey in the AFC Champions League, creating history to be the first Malaysian team to be in the group stage proper but there was also a seismic change with the regards to the squad that has not been seen since the rebranding of the team from an association to a club structure.
Since 2013 when JDT was introduced to the world, Safiq Rahim has always been the fulcrum of the team and the number one man when it comes to the creative side of things. Last season saw the slow process of Safiq being edged out of the team which eventually culminated in his move to Melaka this season.
Fernando Elizari last season and Nazmi Faiz this season have both been tried in that playmaker role in front of the more defensive central midfielder but neither has impressed on a consistent basis. Without a natural creator in the middle, JDT's attacking has relied mostly down the flanks where both Safawi Rasid and Gonzalo Cabrera are as dangerous as they come.
Aaron Niguez was selected as the one to fill the void at the start of the season but the Spaniard has failed to impress and his place in the team was taken over by a returning Leandro Velazquez who is also struggling to live up to his predecessor's level.
During the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, Malaysia national team head coach Tan Cheng Hoe was left without an option in the middle and an unfamiliar was called into action for that midfield role in Syafiq. He produced a decent display during with the national team but instead of moving back to a striking position, that exposure seemed to have opened up other avenues for him at club level.
Against PJ City FC, Syafiq was used by Benjamin Mora as part of the midfield three alongside Hariss Harun and Afiq Fazail, with the license to roam and be the creative hub for the reigning Malaysia Super League champions and Syafiq took the chance with both hands.
It was his goal in the 26th minute that proved to be the difference in what was a difficult outing for JDT. Heavy legs after the midweek exertion against China's Shandong Luneng added to the heavy pitch that suffered greatly due to the downpour earlier in the evening, JDT did just about enough to heap the pressure back on Pahang.
Syafiq broke for a counter attack inside his own half and quickly exchange a one-two with Safawi Rasid. The former Kedah man saw PJ City's goalkeeper Muhaimin Mohamad rushing out from his goal and 23-year-old Syafiq deftly lifted the ball to score in the first half.
JDT were forced deep in the second half as PJ City showed just why they have been on a positive run of results recently. They survived from going down to 10 men in the 60th minute when Mauricio brought down Safee Sali in a last-man challenge and needed Farizal Marlias to produce heroics to deny Bae Beomgeun late in the match but hung on for the win.
With pace on his side, Syafiq possess the energy to be the one alternating between pressuring the opponent and dropping back to help his midfield. It was only a 64 minutes cameo for Syafiq in the role before being replaced by Akhyar Rashid as JDT went into a different system.
It's only one alphabet difference from Safiq to Syafiq but while signs are there, the latter still have a lot to learn to even get on the same level as the former but the promising signs are there that could well see Syafiq making more appearances in this new role.
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