JDT to focus on MSL, not AFC Cup after Muang Thong thrashing
Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) skipper Safiq Rahim admits his team's focus will switch to securing direct qualification for the 2019 AFC Champions League (ACL), following the 5-2 thrashing by Muang Thong United in this year's Second Preliminary Round.
An early capitulation from the Malaysia Super League (MSL) champions on Tuesday night saw them 3-0 down by the half-hour mark, effectively ending their ACL dream for another year.
They still have the AFC Cup to aim for as they go into a group featuring Singapore's Tampines Rovers, Indonesia's Persija Jakarta and Song Lam Nghe An from Vietnam.
But Safiq's main target for the year ahead is to win a fifth successive MSL title in order to compete in the ACL in 2019.
"Both [MSL and AFC Cup] are important but if you can defend the title, you to the Champions League and everyone wants to get there.
"We all must focus on the league because if we win it again, we go direct to the Champions League, so this is the the dream for the club and the players. It will be the first time a team for a Malaysian team to play in the ACL."
Safiq was philosophical about the defeat to Muang Thong in Bangkok, insisting that they were simply outclassed on the day.
"For me, we gave 100 percent," Safiq said. "We followed the coach's instructions, but the result didn't go our way.
"But it's okay because we learned something. Muang Thong have a lot of good players -- they're one of the best teams in Southeast Asia. They have a lot of experience from the ACL.
"We cannot look back. The season is still long, and now we focus on the league."
JDT head coach Ulisses Morais also stressed the need to quickly recover from the disappointment and focus on winning the year's MSL.
"In the first 25 to 30 minutes we found it very difficult to stop Muang Thong's counter attacks," Morais said. "We also made some mistakes, which is not normal.
"Of course, we want to return to this competition and that's why this year, we want to win our league because if we do that, we don't need to play this game (ACL Preliminary Round) next year."
JDT kick off their MSL campaign at home to Kedah on Feb. 3, while they host Persija Jakarta on Feb. 14 in their first AFC Cup match of 2018.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK