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 By John Duerden

JDT's Safiq Rahim rises to new level as Selangor toil in AFC Cup openers

JDT's Juan Lucero and Safiq Rahim
Juan Lucero and Safiq Rahim ran riot as JDT ran out 8-1 winners. (Photo credit: Asiana.my)

The 2016 AFC Cup has started in exciting fashion for Malaysian teams, with the two games returning a goal tally of 13 that was unlucky for some.

Selangor went to the Philippines to draw 2-2 with Ceres La Salle while Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) thrashed Ayeyawady United, of Myanmar, 8-1.

Here are three things we learned from this week's action.

1. Safiq Rahim is Southeast Asia's in-form midfielder

Sure, there are some Thai stars who are itching to get the new season started but the man already setting the standard is the JDT and Malaysian captain. Safiq Rahim has started 2016 with goals, assists and all-round performances that suggest the Year of the Monkey could be very good indeed.

Three goals is never to be sniffed at, whatever the opposition, even if Ayeyawady United could have been considerably tighter at the back. His second and third were typical of the top-class goalscoring midfielder, arriving in the box late, to smash a pull back from the byline into the net.

At 28, Safiq is at his peak and is the leader on the pitch that club and country need. Every year he seems to get better. It is the mark of a fine player in form when he starts the season in the same excellent fashion that he ended the previous one.

Even in the craziness of the first half hour on Wednesday night when the goals where flying in on both sides and shots were ricocheting around the areas, Safiq operated on a different level of calmness than anyone else.

If he can end the year as he has started it, then the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup could be very interesting indeed.

Selangor striker Andres Olivi
Argentine import Mauro Olivi scored Selangor's first goal against Ceres. (Photo credit: Asiana.my)

2. Selangor are still a work in progress

The Red Giants went the Philippines on Tuesday evening and were happy and a little lucky to come away with a point. There is nothing wrong with that. This is the AFC Cup and the away trips can be tricky.

Ceres La Salle were aggressive and full of attacking intent, driven on by the impressive and intelligent Stephan Schrock. The German-born midfielder was the best player on the pitch and the men in yellow had their chances to win the game.

The catastrophic mistake from goalkeeper Michael Casas let the Malaysians back in the game after Schrock had put the hosts ahead. Then the visitors took the lead, thanks to a fantastic free kick from Hafiz Kamal.

In the end, Adrian Gallardo headed home a late Schrock cross to earn Ceres a deserved point.

Selangor were also happy. But there is still plenty of work for new coach Zainal Abidin Hassan. There was a lack of cohesion and discipline, especially at the back, for the 33-time Malaysia Cup winners. Individual mistakes could have cost the visitors.

Unfortunately, with the games coming thick and fast, there is not much time to increase fluency and understanding on the training pitch. So, it is going to have to be a by-product of competitive action.

This is nothing to get too concerned about. There have been plenty of changes at the club and it takes time to get everyone on the same page. The trip to the Philippines was a valuable one and a point was a good result.

If the coach can improve the teamwork while continuing to pick up points, then this could be a good season for Selangor.

Philippines midfielder Stephan Schrock
Philippines and Ceres La Salle midfielder Stephan Schrock, right, stood out against Selangor.

3. Malaysian teams should look to ASEAN for talent

The results achieved by JDT and Selangor were good but there was plenty of talent on display in the ranks of the opponents. Manny Ott had impressed for Ceres La Salle but Schrock was head and shoulders above everyone else on the Panaad Stadium pitch.

The former Bundesliga man may not exactly be cheap by the standards of the Philippines league but it shows that there are gems in Southeast Asia. Selangor have Andik Vermansyah from Indonesia but most Malaysian teams don't look beyond their own backyard.

Ayeyawady may have been on the receiving end of a severe thrashing at the hands of the Malaysian champions. But clubs could do worse than look at players like Thiha Zaw.

If Faiz Subri scored the best goal in the world last week, then there won't be many better anywhere than the thunderbolt unleashed by the Myanmar international.

The 22-year-old dribbled past four defenders and then fired home into the top corner. We saw this week that there are bargains to be found in other ASEAN countries.

John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden

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