JDT face Muang Thong United on tough road to qualify for 2018 ACL
Malaysia Super League (MSL) champions Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) will face Thai opponents in the AFC Champions League (ACL) preliminary round for the fourth consecutive year as Muang Thong United lie in wait again.
The pair faced off in 2016, with the Thai side prevailing in a penalty shootout following a 0-0 draw at the SCG Stadium.
For JDT, this represented an improved performance after a meek exit in a 3-0 defeat to Bangkok Glass the previous year.
In 2017, the Malaysian side went one better as they overcame Bangkok United, winning in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw. The Southern Tigers progressed to the playoff round, but they were soundly beaten 3-0 by Gamba Osaka in Japan.
JDT have a significant challenge on their hands in the one-off tie on the outskirts of Bangkok on Jan. 23. Although Muang Thong failed to retain their Thai League title this year, they were excellent in the ACL as they saw off opponents from South Korea, Australia and Japan to qualify for the Round of 16.
Eventual semifinalists Kawasaki Frontale defeated the Thai side in the first knockout round, but the Kirins will have some formidable players in their lineup if they can hold onto them.
Thailand internationals Theerathon Bunmathan, Teerasil Dangda and Kawin Thamsatchanan have all been linked with moves to Japan, following the success of loan star Chanathip Songkrasin at Consadole Sapporo.
Muang Thong also have Swiss Thai midfielder Charyl Chappuis in their ranks -- a player who recently rejected suggestions that he had been approached by JDT with a view to a move to Malaysia.
The winners of this match will progress to the playoff round for a place in the group stage of the ACL. There they will face a Japanese side whose identify will not be known until the final of the Emperor's Cup on Jan. 1.
2015 AFC Cup winners JDT are desperate to test themselves in the ACL group stage, but the draw has again been unkind, and it will take two huge performances if they are to achieve that goal in 2018.
In next year's first preliminary round, S.League runners up Tampines Rovers travel to Indonesia to face Bali United. Their opponents were runners up in their domestic league, while Myanmar champions Shan United will host the champions of the Philippines.
If Tampines can make it to the second preliminary round, they will travel to meet Thai FA Cup winners Chiang Rai United. At the same stage, Hong Kong's Eastern SC host Vietnam's FLC Thanh Hoa.
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