A year ago: Johor Darul Ta'zim stun defending champs for first AFC Champions League win

Syafiq Ahmad's goal was enough for JDT to top Kashima in their first AFC Champions League win. Wallace Woon/EPA

Having won the past six editions of the Super League, Johor Darul Ta'zim are the undisputed kings of Malaysian football.

But a year ago, the Southern Tigers were facing potential elimination from the AFC Champions League. After four consecutive failed attempts to qualify for Asia's premier club competition, Johor Darul Ta'zim finally broke through in 2019. The squad, however, were immediately outclassed and managed to pick up just one point after their first four group stage matches.

It was always going to be tough as they were drawn alongside 2018 champions the Kashima Antlers of Japan, a Shandong Luneng side boasting ex-Premier League stars in Marouane Fellaini and Graziano Pelle, and fellow first-time club Gyeongnam FC.

On May 8, 2019, as JDT welcomed a Kashima outfit that still had eight of their starting XI that had won the title the previous season. It looked as though another defeat was in the cards -- one that would have sealed their elimination with a game to spare.

Despite missing Brazilian forward Diogo through suspension, the Southern Tigers capitalised on their home advantage as Kashima struggled with the unfamiliar sweltering conditions in Johor Bahru.

With 21 minutes remaining in the contest, Syafiq Ahmad -- who took Diogo's starting spot -- picked up possession down the left and drove into the box. He forced his way past a meek challenge from Tomoya Inukai before dispatching a shot into the bottom corner.

That goal was enough to seal the first AFC Champions League win, not just for Johor Darul Ta'zim, but for all of Malaysian football, showing that the Southern Tigers could compete against Asia's top competition.

The 1-0 win over Kashima was the latest chapter in JDT's rise that began in 2013 when the club was born after the merger of Johor FA and Johor FC. Johor Darul Ta'zim's inaugural campaign saw them finish third in the Super League before they began to dominate domestic play a year later with their first league title.

They followed with their first regional title in 2015 with an AFC Cup championship -- the second-tier competition of Asian club football -- in controversial fashion.

Already doing well to reach the semifinals, JDT were firmly on their way out of the competition as they trailed Kuwaiti outfit Al Qadsia 3-1 from the first leg, only for their opponents to be disqualified after the Kuwait Football Association were suspended from all competition by FIFA after accusations of government interference.

Now into the final, the Malaysians came up against Tajikistan's Istiklol -- who also progressed as a result of their own last-four opponent's (Kuwait SC's) disqualification. They recorded a smash-and-grab 1-0 win to be crowned AFC Cup champions.

Playing in the AFC Champions League was always the ultimate goal for the Southern Tigers.

While the Asian football calendar is at a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, JDT have already won their first ACL match in the 2020 campaign by topping two-time champions Suwon Samsung Bluewings 2-1 on March 3.

Given the ambition they possess and the strides they have made in recent years, few would bet against the Southern Tigers chalking up more famous wins in the future.

Still, for its historic nature, May 8, 2019 will be a date to remember for all associated with Johor Darul Ta'zim and Malaysian football on a whole.