The Malaysia Super League title is once again headed to Johor Darul Ta'zim's overflowing trophy cabinet, as a Bergson da Silva treble helped them defeat Sri Pahang 3-0 to secure another piece of silverware at the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium on Friday.
They might not finish the season unbeaten like they did last time around, but Benjamin Mora's side were still pretty impressive during the 2021 season as they won their 8th consecutive league title with two games to spare while tasting defeat only once on the way.
Consistency is the key as no stopping JDT again
After a disappointing 2021 AFC Champions League campaign, where they exited the competition in the group stage, JDT resumed their domestic commitments with Terengganu breathing down their neck - as just three points separated the sides at the halfway stage.
Seven games and a little over a month later, the Southern Tigers have opened up an unassailable 14-point lead at the top of the table that has secured the title. While JDT churned out results one after another, their main chasers Terengganu and Kedah Darul Aman crumbled to hand the title to Johor on a silver platter.
The Turtles were Johor's closest challengers during the early part of the season and inflicted the only loss on them back in April. But slip-ups to Melaka United and Sabah extinguished their title hopes, before a defeat to Kedah last week have now dented their chances of even a runners-up finish.
Kedah, on the other hand, also had a bright start to the 2021 season. But goals from key men Kpah Sherman and Kipre Tchetche dried up significantly during the second half of the season, meaning the Red Eagles are once again set to finish second-best to JDT in the league.
JDT, meanwhile, bounced back from the continental despair by recording seven wins in a row, negotiating some tricky fixtures against the likes of Melaka, Selangor and UiTM FC on the way and proving once again that consistency is key to success.
Arif the biggest find in JDT's victorious campaign
As the man in charge of one of the wealthiest teams in the Southeast Asian region, Argentine tactician Mora has considerable spending power at his disposal but he managed to unearth a gem of their own in the form of highly-promising 18-year-old winger Arif Aiman this term.
The teenager, who has risen through the club's academy, has been a revelation this season appearing in all but one league fixture for the Southern Tigers and terrorising opposition defences up and down the country.
Arif became JDT's youngest-ever goalscorer in the Super League and provided the much-needed attacking impetus for the club when the more-experienced Safawi Rasid spent a prolonged spell on the sidelines. Arif was also rewarded with a national team call up by Malaysia coach Tan Cheng Hoe.
With an impressive 2021 campaign under his belt, Arif has proven that he is not just one for the future but also for here and now.
Another shining light for the Malaysian giants has been Bergson, who has emerged as the league's leading scorer with 23 goals from 18 appearances. The Brazilian's displays so far prove he is a worthy replacement for Diogo who returned to Thailand with BG Pathum United at the end of 2020.
It's high time for a Champions League breakthrough
Despite another domestic silverware in their bag, JDT's focus next season will once again be to make progress at the continental stage. And it feels like the time is running out for this group of JDT players to make a mark in Asia.
Of the 11 players who started the game against Pahang on Friday, only three -- Matthew Davies, Adam Nor Azlin and Arif -- are less than 30 years old. Malaysia international goalkeeper Farizal Marlias and midfield general Natxo Insa are the oldest players in the squad at 35.
Centre-back Aidil Zafuan, full back S. Kunanlan and midfielder Safiq Rahim are all only a year younger than the duo while Mauricio, Gonzalo Cabrera and Leandro Velazquez are all 32. Though there is no denying they are still some of the best in Southeast Asia, the truth is that time will not be on their side for a whole lot longer.
In their third outing in the continent's premier club competition, Johor were expected to finally make it to the knockout stages of ACL. Instead, 2021 saw them exit the tournament with just one win in the group stage.
Though they have helped establish JDT as one of the biggest sides in ASEAN, these players will be itching for a good run in the Champions League. The Super League triumph has given them another ticket to Asia and it will now be up to their seasoned campaigners to make it happen in 2022.