KUALA LUMPUR: The race for the Malaysia Hockey League (MHL) title is over, bar the shouting. Sapura lead Ernst and Young by a point and should claim their maiden title at the completion of the preliminary rounds on Friday.
The Sapura team play two relatively weaker teams – Dolphin tomorrow and Customs on Friday.
Ernst and Young cut Sapura's lead to one point with a 23-1 rout of Dolphin on Sunday but goal difference is unlikely to come into play in deciding the champions.
Coach Tai Beng Hai said: “Two wins are all we need. The 3-3 draw with Maybank was a huge relief to the players. The team have got over the worst stage in the league.
“We can now go out and play with greater confidence and also work on the weak areas in our game ahead of the quarter-finals.”
With the league title as good as decided, attention switches to the quarter-finals.
The draw for the two-leg quarter-final ties, which begin on Sunday, has been fixed and teams would certainly not want to be in the top half of the draw as Sapura.
The teams in fourth and fifth places will go into the top half and the other side will be decided in a playoff between the eighth and ninth finishers of the league.
Former champions Maybank (33 points) are now in fourth place and one rung below are dethroned league champions Tenaga Nasional (29 points). If they remain in the same positions, both teams will meet in the quarter-finals.
Bank Simpanan Nasional (BSN) are in third position with 35 points and if they finish in the same spot, they will play against the sixth-placed teams, who are likely to be the Royal Malay Regiment (RMR).
With two matches remaining for all the teams, the positions from the second place onwards are likely to see some changes.
The question now is whether the teams will manipulate the matches to their advantages.
Tenaga coach K. Rajan said: “I believe that all teams will start planning for the knockout stage once their challenge for the league title is over.
“The draw has already been made and there is no reason for us not wanting to pick a position to get the best draw. We are left with the task to retain the overall title.”
The league winners and runners-up are virtually assured of places in the semi-finals because they will be up against qualifiers from the playoffs.
Maybank coach Wallace Tan said: “Our tasks in the last two matches are to win both of them and finish in a higher position to get a more favourable quarter-final draw.”
Maybank could finish third in front of BSN. The Tigers' remaining matches are against Tenaga and Dolphin while BSN will be up against RMR and Ernst and Young.
Ernst and Young coach A. Arulselvaraj said that they would not want to finish lower than second place.
“The title is out of our hands unless Customs perform a miracle and draw against Sapura in their last match.
“For us, we have to make sure that we don't muff it up against the MHF Project squad and BSN,” he said.
“I want the players to keep up their form and ensure that they play their best in all matches even if it is against a weaker side,” added Arulselvaraj.
The league champions will pocket RM25, 000 while the runners-up will take RM10,000. You get nothing for third place. So we have to ensure that we don't drop to that spot,” said Arulselvaraj.