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Johor Darul Ta'zim's Safawi aiming for 'outstanding' performances ahead of AFC Champions League opener


Bangkok: As Johor Darul Ta'zim prepare to take to the AFC Champions League stage for the third successive season, star forward Safawi Rasid has admitted the Malaysian powerhouse are looking to break new ground in the competition.

JDT created history for Malaysian football when they became the first team from their country to qualify for the AFC Champions League in 2019, and they went on to stun holders Kashima Antlers by claiming a 1-0 win in Johor Bahru before ultimately exiting at the first hurdle.

A year later they returned and Safawi's penalty drew JDT level with Andres Iniesta's Vissel Kobe on the opening matchday before they went on to lose the tie. The subsequent 2-1 victory over Suwon Samsung Bluewings, however, brought with it plenty of optimism before COVID-19 eventually led to their withdrawal from the competition.

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"I am very excited to be back in the AFC Champions League because we haven't been able to play as much as we would have liked due to COVID-19," Safawi, whose side begin their campaign against Japan's Nagoya Grampus later on Tuesday, told the-AFC.com.

"After what happened last year, we are really eager to prove that JDT can continue to compete with the best teams in Asia. Having played at this level for two or three years now, we have set the target to qualify for the next stage.

"At the very least we want to achieve this because this would show the continued improvement of our club at this level."

Long since touted as one of the hottest prospects in Southeast Asia, Safawi announced his arrival in the AFC Champions League in 2019 with a stunning effort away at China PR's Shandong Luneng with a goal that was voted by fans as the best of the decade.

Having also already played a key part in famous wins over Japanese and Korean opposition in the previous two editions, Safawi has shown that he has what it takes when faced with the continent's finest.

The Malaysian international's next test will come against Nagoya when JDT open their Group G account at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium before taking on Thai side Ratchaburi Mitr Phol and Korea's Pohang Steelers.

"That goal [against Shandong] on my debut campaign is undoubtedly one of the best I've ever scored and I want to put in more outstanding performances like that to contribute to my team," admitted Safawi.

"We all know how strong the leagues are in Japan. Korea and Thailand, and they play a faster style of football to us, but it is not impossible for us to get a point or even a win against these sides as long as we play as a team."

Plenty has happened since Safawi last turned out in the AFC Champions League, meanwhile, as the 24-year-old had a loan stint with Portuguese side Portimonense before returning to his homeland at the end of 2020.

Since arriving back in Malaysia, Safawi has seen more firepower added to the JDT frontline with Brazilian striker Bergson da Silva on red-hot form in the side's quest for an eighth title in a row.

"We can see from his performances just how important he is; from his very first game he has been scoring goals, so I really believe he'll be able to shine in the AFC Champions League and will be a major strength for us," added Safawi.

"But we all have our roles to play. We've come to Thailand with a mission and, regardless of who we're up against, we want to give our best for the team, the fans and everyone back in Johor."

Photo: Johor Darul Ta'zim

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