The AFC Champions League 2019 draw has finally been made and for supporters of Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), it will now be restless days as they count down to the historic moment, come March 2019, when their beloved club will embark on their maiden continental campaign.
The 2018 Malaysia Super League champions have been drawn into Group E of the upcoming season of AFC Champions League where they will battle it out against runners up from South Korea’s K League and two sides who come through the playoffs for a place in the Round of 16.
It won’t be an easy task for the Southern Tigers to compete against some of the best teams in Asia (and Australia) and if they have to reach the knockout stages of the Asia’s premier club competition on their maiden appearance, they will indeed have to punch well above their weight.
But in order to achieve that envious feat, they will want all their stars to be at the very top of their game — some more than others. Here, FOX Sports Asia explores five players among the JDT ranks who could prove to be pivotal in the Malaysian outfit’s fortunes in the AFC Champions League.
5. Safawi Rasid (Malaysia)
An explosive attacker with a bundle of talent, Safawi has been a revelation for Malaysia and Johor in 2018. In January, he led the Harimau Malaya into the quarterfinals of the 2018 AFC U23 Championship in China, but his best in the national colours came at the 2018 Asian Games later in the year when he scored a brace to upset eventual champions South Korea.
At the club level too, the 21-year-old carved open defences as JDT ran away with the league title — Safawi finishing as the club’s top scorer with 16 goals across all competition including a hat-trick in a 2–3 win over UiTM in the third round of the Malaysia FA Cup. There were whispers of a move abroad, but JDT has moved quickly to tie down the player with a new long-term contract.
An attacker who is capable of scoring goals as well as creating chances for his teammates, his raw potential will be something JDT’s opponents will be wary of — because with performances against some big names in the AFC U23 Championship and Asian Games, Safawi has proved he is unfazed by the opposition he comes up against.
4. Hariss Harun (Singapore)
Hariss has won plenty of silverware with Johor including the AFC Cup in 2015, the Malaysia FA Cup in 2016 and five successive MSL titles since 2014. But the Singapore midfielder will be hungry to taste even more success when he begins a new adventure with the Southern Tigers in the AFC Champion League.
The 28-year-old was named the Best ASEAN Player of 2018 by the Malaysia Football League recently and is currently skippering the Singapore Lions at the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018. Hariss is someone who leads by example on and off the pitch and his leadership qualities will be vital as JDT prepares for the biggest test in the club’s history.
“I was just 24 when I came here to improve my game and help the team achieve thing. The project was still in its early days. JDT has helped me in many ways. Next year is massive for the club with the AFC Champions League. A club of this stature must consistently play at that level, which is a huge step up,” he said earlier this year.
3. La’Vere Corbin-Ong (Malaysia)
Born in England, brought up in Canada, started professional football in Germany and now waiting for a call-up to the Malaysia national team, the 27-year-old has been a real globetrotter. Signed from Dutch second division side Go Ahead Eagles last year, the left-back has quickly established himself as a key player in Luciano Figueroa’s team.
He might not be a star name, but Corbin-Ong might just be the player Johor want when they line-up against clubs of much greater stature in Asia. The full back, who made an international appearance for Canada in 2017, is known for his long-bursting runs along the left channel and for his Rory Delap-esque long throw-ins.
Standing at six feet and never afraid of a tackle, Corbin-Ong’s physicality and strength might just be the medicine the Malaysians want when they go up against some of the Japanese and South Korean teams in the AFC Champions League this season.
2. Mauricio (Brazil)
The Brazilian defender has played for some of the biggest clubs in the world in Brazil’s Palmeiras, Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon, Italy’s Lazio and Russia’s Spartak Moscow. And that experience will be something he should be looking to impart to his new teammates as they prep up for AFC Champions League.
Mauricio will have big boots to fill as he is expected to replace club legend Marcos Antonio, his compatriot who was released by JDT at the end of last season, at the centre of the defence. Mauricio was brought to Europe at the age of 26 by Leonardo Jardim and other than his first season under the coach at Sporting, Mauricio hasn’t enjoyed outside South America.
Having terminated his contract with Italian club Lazio to enable the transfer to Southeast Asia, the 30-year-old should be viewing the move to JDT as the perfect opportunity to prove his doubters wrong. And what better platform to do so than the biggest and grandest football competition in Asia!
1. Aaron Niguez (Spain)
Spanish winger Aaron is the latest addition to the Johor squad and will replace Argentine Fernando Elizari. The Valencia youth product is the elder brother of Atletico Madrid and Spain national team midfielder Saul Niguez and is expected to lead the attacks for JDT during the upcoming season.
Aaron brings with him a truckload of experience in European football having spent most of his career in the Spanish second tier with clubs like Real Oviedo, Tenerife, Braga and Elche. He is a utility player capable of operating as a false-9, second striker and in attacking midfield apart from both the wings.
He was once named among top 50 most exciting teenage footballers by the World Soccer Magazine along with the likes of Karim Benzema, Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero. In 29-year-old Aaron, JDT has in their ranks a true talent and a weapon that they can employ to hurt oppositions in the continental competition.