Johor Darul Ta'zim's ascension stunted by early withdrawal from AFC Champions League

Johor Darul Ta'zim will have to wait until 2021 to take the next step in continental football. Power Sport Images

On Wednesday evening, it emerged that Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim would not be able to travel to Qatar for next week's AFC Champions League's East Zone restart and will have to withdraw from the tournament.

The immediate sentiment is that this is a missed opportunity for the Southern Tigers.

In a year of change and "new normals" due to the ongoing pandemic, JDT's dominance in Malaysian football was a constant -- having claimed a 7th consecutive Super League crown last month with a seven-point winning margin in a shortened 11-game campaign.

Given how they continue to dominate the domestic front, their true test growth of was supposed to come in Asia's premier club competition. After making their debut last year, the 2020 AFC Champions League campaign had already been a positive one for JDT.

They bounced back after a humbling 5-1 defeat to an Andres Iniesta-inspired Vissel Kobe outfit in the opening by beating Suwon Samsung Bluewings 2-1.

While there was a smash-and-grab, luck-of-the-moment feel to last year's win over Kashima Antlers -- their first-ever in competition history -- the Suwon match had an element of control as JDT more than matched their opponent's talent and skill.

JDT would have relished their next challenge against two-time Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande. In a year that has seen the form book thrown out the window in leagues all over the world, who is to say the Malaysian team would not have pulled off an upset or two?

Star forward Safawi Rasid did leave for Portugal's Portimonense, but the Southern Tigers continue to boast their national team's best talent along with foreign imports like Hariss Harun and Mauricio, who all look like they belong on the Champions League stage with each outing.

With some precocious talent coming through the ranks, including 18-year-old Arif Aiman -- who recently became the youngest scorer in JDT history -- the ACL would have provided invaluable exposure to these rising stars.

All that JDT could have potentially achieved on the continental front this year is now purely speculative after Wednesday's announcement.

The one positive for them? Their domestic dominance means that they have once again qualified for the Champions League in 2021, and will just have to wait a few months for their next opportunity to take match it with the big boys of Asian football.