THE Malaysian League kicks off Saturday and all eyes will surely be on the Super League, as the top teams begin their campaigns for the coveted title and a place in the AFC Champions League 2016.
The Premier League season started on Friday with teams like Sabah, Kedah, Selangor PKNS, Negeri Sembilan, Penang and JDT II getting off to winning starts.
All six winners will be looking to book promotion to the Super League, but with two spots only up for grabs, analysts are expecting this year’s Premier League season to be feisty one.
Nevertheless, since the Super League is where the big teams will slug it out, here are some interesting things you should note for this season:
The favourites are undoubtedly Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), Pahang and Terengganu. Yes, I said it! And Terengganu is one of the favourites this time because of one man. (I will come to that part in a bit).
JDT and Pahang have kept most of their players from last season and have also held on to their foreign players, which is a surprise in the Malaysian League.
The Southern Tigers have improved their squad by bringing in young defensive midfielder Junior Eldstal, speedsters S. Kunalan and S. Chanturu, young defenders Mohd Fandi Othman and Amer Saidin and the ever-reliable keeper Farizal Marlias.
These signings are only going to make JDT stronger as they are fighting on four fronts (ie the Super League, FA Cup, Malaysia Cup and the AFC Champions League, or if they do not make it out of the preliminary stages of the Champions League, then the AFC Cup).
Pahang, meanwhile, have retained all the players except for creative midfielder Faizol Hussein who is back with hometown team JDT II. They have also brought in D. Saarvindran from Harimau Muda and diminutive left-back Abdul Aziz Ismail.
These two will improve the squad but Pahang will continue to rely on their Nigerian forward Dickson Nwakaeme and pacy wingers R. Gopinathan and Azamuddin Akil.
Terengganu, on the other hand, have quietly strengthened their squad with formidable imports and the signing of Paulo Rangel is enough to place them as one the favourites in the league.
Having scored 16 goals last season for Selangor, Rangel will partner Lebanese international Hassan Chaito, whose mazy runs and ability to make probing passes will help aid Rangel’s mission to score goals for the East Coast side and maybe the title too.
I expect Perak, Kelantan, Selangor and Felda United to give the three favourites a run for their money.
Selangor would have been one of the favourites had they had kept Rangel but due to wage issues, the Brazilian left the club in an acrimonious manner. The Red Giants have brought in another Brazilian striker Guilherme de Paula to replace him, but I doubt he can emulate the Rangel’s feats.
Kelantan, in the meantime, have complained about limited sponsorship but have added some pretty decent players to the squad. Having made Brendan Gan the vice-captain, George Boateng will be hoping for loads more fiery performances from the Australian-born Malaysian.
Felda United, who finished second in the Premier League last season, did well in the Malaysia Cup and look set to carry that momentum in the Super League.
With experienced players like Mohd Shukor Adan, Indra Putra Mahayuddin and Shahrulnizam Mustapha and also exciting foreign players like Ndumba Makeche, Zah Rahan Krangar and Edward Junior Wilson, Felda are surely one of the surprise packages.
Any team coached by Datuk M. Karathu will certainly have an edge. In that sense, Perak is privileged to have him back on board. With a mix of young and old, I see this side springing a surprise or two.
With Bobby Gonzales and Charles Chad leading the line, young Norhakim Isa and South Korean Wong Namkung and Brazilian trickster Marcos Tulio in the middle, Perak will surely rely on an exciting brand of football to do well this season.
PDRM won the Premier League last season but I’m expecting them to be in a relegation dogfight this season. Letting players like Charles, Gonzales, Azizon Abdul Kadir and Munir Amran leave was a mistake as they were key performers last season. I believe the decision to rely only on Maldivian forward Ali Ashfaq will surely backfire, and Azman Adnan will need to call on his other players to ensure survival.
And then there is Sarawak. Before the league has even started, Robert Alberts has conceded that survival is their only aim this season. When a coach says that, it truly shows how “confident” he is in his squad.
I think losing Junior Eldstal and S. Chanturu to JDT has affected the team a little. Those two were promising for Sarawak in the league last season and Alberts will have to demand more from his local and foreign players if they want to avoid being booted to the Premier League.
Hopes for the season
My biggest wish is for entertaining and closely contested season. However, there are some other aspects, which I would like to bring up.
When it comes to professionalism, Kelantan and JDT have been exemplary for the last three seasons. It is sad to see sides like Selangor and Perak grappling with wage issues and fan revolts every year.
My hope for them is to get their act right and return back to the days where young kids dreamed of playing for them.
I also hope teams will seek to get the relevant authorities to upgrade and maintain pitches as it will help improve the game.
The pitch at Stadium Merdeka in Sabah’s opening match against Kuala Lumpur looked horrendous and I’m sure Senegalese forward El-Hadji Diouf, who has played on top-notch pitches around the world, would have regretted playing on such a field.
Alternatively, teams should seek sponsors and make it their own responsibility to redo pitches. I believe if we want football to improve, we need to top quality pitches.
When the football improves, the fans will surely come back.
If the clubs and even the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) address this, I am sure the league will improve and things will start lookinggood for Malaysian football.> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.