As JDT return to winning ways, can wing wizards Arif and Safawi feature together?

Safawi Rasid and Arif Aiman were both in excellent form as Johor Darul Ta'zim resumed their Malaysia Super League campaign on Sunday with a 3-1 win over UiTM FC. Johor Darul Ta'zim FC

For some time now, Johor Darul Ta'zim's Safawi Rasid has run defenders absolutely ragged down the wing.

Yet, JDT coach Benjamin Mora has had to make some tough calls in recent months with Arif Aiman's rise.

The Southern Tigers' 3-1 victory against UiTM FC -- on their return to Malaysia Super League action on Sunday -- only add to his selection headache, as teenager Arif tormented the opposition before the more-seasoned Safawi came off the bench to give his side the go-ahead goal.

Arif became the Super League's youngest scorer at the age of 18 years and 10 months when he struck against the same side in March after replacing an injured Safawi.

It did not take long for Malaysia boss Tan Cheng Hoe to become a fan and rewarded Arif with a national team call-up for the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in June. The 19-year-old repaid the faith by putting on a couple of decent displays despite Harimau Malaya's exit from the competition.

Wrapping up a wild first half of 2021 for Arif was JDT's AFC Champions League campaign in Bangkok, where he was one of few silver linings for the club as they made a group stage exit collecting just four points from six fixtures.

Safawi has yet to regain peak form since returning from a short loan at Portugal's Portimonense. Since returning from injury in April, the 24-year-old has only started two of the six Super League fixtures as Mora has preferred Arif on the right flank.

That was the case at the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium on Sunday as well and Arif was a real handful for UiTM defenders Aliff Najmi and Syahmi Shukri. The diminutive winger has the pace and the skills to take on defenders and can also deliver some killer balls into the box.

It was from one such delivery that led to Gonzalo Cabrera equalising for Johor five minutes into the second half, after Joel Vinicius had given the visitors a surprise lead. Safawi was subbed in after the hour-mark and regained the spotlight with JDT's second before Bergson da Silva sealed the victory in the 88th minute.

So, who among the attacking duo will Mora prefer as the season progresses? Will the exciting Arif continue to upstage his more experienced teammate? Or is it going to be Safawi, with his deadly left foot and set-piece prowess, who can force his way back into the starting XI and keep the teenager at bay?

Perhaps a more important question that will be on Mora's mind: Can both of them feature in the same side?

Mora has tried to accommodate both as recently as earlier this month in a 2-0 ACL defeat to Pohang Steelers, with Arif shifted to the left wing. JDT's display in that match suggests the jury is still out.

While that is a question for the coming weeks, JDT needed to answer another on Sunday: Would they bounce back after a disappointing ACL run and return their focus back to the domestic front?

The answer was a straightforward "yes" as they reclaimed their three-point lead in the Malaysian top division with their victory.

At the halfway point of the 2021 season, it looks to be a two-pronged challenge waged by Terengganu and Kedah Darul Aman to dethrone the Southern Tigers from the domestic crown.

The Turtles from Terengganu are Johor's closest challengers, lagging behind by only three points. Fueled by some strong performances from their midfield livewire Makan Konate and young winger Hakimi Abdullah, Terengganu are lying in wait for a slip up from their title rivals.

Kedah also remain in the hunt after finishing seven points behind JDT last season as runners-up. Kpah Sherman and Kipre Tchetche still shoulder the scoring responsibilities for the Red Eagles netting 15 of their 21 goals in the league this campaign.

For now, JDT remain in the driving seat. And if Arif and Safawi continue to play their part, an 8th successive league title should not be too far away.