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AFC Champions League

Malaysia's golden boy Arif Aiman shows he's the key to JDT's ACL chances

11:57 BST 26/06/2021
Ratchaburi v Johor Darul Ta'zim, AFC Champions League, 25 Jun 2021
Despite the slim margin of victory, JDT stamped their class all over Ratchaburi in picking up their first three points of AFC Champions League 2021.

The mission was clear for Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) after their opening day defeat to Nagoya Grampus, win against Ratchaburi or let slip a glorious opportunity to break into the knockout stage in only their third ever season in Asia's top club competition.

What transpired in the narrowest of victory margins was a display so dominant that the Thai club was playing second fiddle to the Malaysian champions for the majority of the match. The Southern Tigers had the lion share of possession for a good 75 minutes, three times as many attempts at goal than their opponents and clearly head and shoulders better than their counterpart.

Despite making changes to his side with regulars like Afiq Fazail and Safawi Rasid dropping to the bench, it was a much more fluent JDT performance albeit against a lesser opponent in Ratchaburi than what Nagoya was a couple of days back. Safiq Rahim may be slower than before but still possess the necessary passing quality in a match which JDT dictated.

In truth, this was a match which JDT should have won by a few more goals as the scoreline doesn't quite do justice to what was produced. Bergson could have given them a first half lead but a poorly placed penalty put paid to that hope before a little bit of individual quality from Leandro Velazquez sent JDT on their way early in the second half.

Velazquez earned the official man of the match award with his tireless display behind Bergson but it was another member of the squad who may have just stole his thunder. Teenager Arif Aiman continues to impress and in the 73 minutes he was on the pitch, caused so much trouble to Ratchaburi's left back Kiatisak Jia-udom that the latter was brought off at the hour mark to be replaced by Jirawat Thongsaengphrao.

On the evidence of his performance, it was easy to understand why JDT's head coach Benjamin Mora decided to keep Arif in the starting line-up instead of the more experienced Safawi. Both Safawi and Arif did not have a good outing against Thailand for the national team in the World Cup qualifier but the latter is showing greater bouncebackability than his more illustrious compatriot who is seemingly in a bad slump.

It was a tremendous performance from the 19-year-old in this game where he showed plenty of bravery and courage to continually put his marker on the backfoot with his desire to take on his marker whenever they get isolated down the right hand channel. 

Very often young players can have great games without necessary impacting the game but the same cannot be said of Arif's performance against Ratchaburi. With three chances created, he not only won his personal duel but alslo had the final pass made with the right decision. Had his team mates been more clinical, Arif would certainly have a few assists under his belt from this game.

Apart from tending to a couple of corner kicks, this was a match which Farizal Marlias had very little to do. With JDT controlling the game, Ratchaburi were denied space to attack and thus created very few openings to test the Malaysian international. Much of the good defensive work was done in front of him with Shane Lowry stepping up to the plate and performed well.

Ratchaburi had clearly earmarked Mauricio to be the better defender compared to Lowry and set out to have striker Junior Mpia Mapuku go up against Lowry, in hope that there will be chances for the Congolese players to exploit. But Lowry was having none of that, with the Australian defender marking Mapuku completely out of the game.

The last few Super League matches leading up to the international break showcased JDT's defence was there for the taking and steps were quickly taken by the management to bring in another player to shore up that area of the pitch, knowing full well that the experienced Aidil Zafuan could struggle in physical battle against a big strong striker like Mapuku.

While new signing Shahrul Saad may be earmarked to eventually take up the mantle and be the preferred choice at the heart of the defence alongside Mauricio, for the time being Lowry is proving that this is a shrewd piece of business that will only help JDT in the immediate term.