DEZ CORKHILL is:
KUALA LUMPUR CITY: STORY OF THE SEASON – (PART 1)
MIXED RESULTS – ENCOURAGING SIGNS
–6th March 2021–
Cautious optimism ahead of the new Malaysia Super League (MSL) season for Kuala Lumpur City. Malaysia’s most successful foreign Coach, Bojan Hodak, has been enticed to lead the team who field 6 debutants (plus a second debut for the returning Irfan Zakaria) for the tricky trip to a Penang side who were promoted alongside Kuala Lumpur City from the Malaysia Premier League last term.
A pleasing sight is the simplicity of the Kuala Lumpur City kit. A simple red shirts, white shorts, red socks ensemble that psychologically makes Kuala Lumpur City LOOK like a serious football team.
The match at the neat and tidy Bandaraya Stadium in Penang is decided by a set-piece goal in the first half. Former KL favourite Casagrande flicks on a near-post corner and David Rowley ghosts in unmarked at the far post. Kuala Lumpur City had their chances to draw level with a clearly still-getting-fit Dominique da Sylva impressing. A second KL returnee, Safee Sali, was thrown on as the City Boys sought parity, but Penang held firm with goalkeeper Sam Somerville making a brilliant late save to deny Romel Morales a late equalizer.
A frustrating start to puncture that pre-season mood of optimism.
–10th March 2021–
The MSL 2020 season surprise package, UiTM, under the canny guidance of Franck Bernhardt, were the first visitors to Cheras Stadium. But this UiTM had been stripped of many of their key players and Bernhardt had been forced to select new foreign Talent to complement a weakened local squad. With those restrictions on the University team a Kuala Lumpur City home win was expected. A dangerous assumption.
Coach Hodak made 2 changes to the team that started in Penang with the industrious and loyal Zhafri Yahyah in for Indra Putra Mahayuddin and young Izreen Izwandy starting ahead of Aiman Fakhrul on the left of the attack. The back 4 remained the same with Nik Shahrul holding off the claims of the recently recruited Kamal Azizi at right back.
When Dominique da Sylva struck early on for Kuala Lumpur City, the assumption was that the home team would go on to secure a comfortable three points. But coming up against a well-organized UiTM back-stopped by Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Picak, a second goal just wouldn’t arrive. Defensively, though, the brand-new back-5 of Kevin Mendoza in goal, Nik Shahrul on the right, the Giancarlo Gallifuoco / Irfan Zakaria central defensive partnership and Daniel Ting on the left looked secure.
Morales was denied late on by a wonder save from Picek, but a first win of the Hodak era was confirmed by a narrow 1-0 with the knowledge that more resolute opposition is just around the corner. Non-the-less The City Boys were up and running.
–13th March 2021–
Selangor are, factually, the “winningest” team in Malaysian Football. The problem for Selangor over the last decade is that – the Mehmet Durakovic Malaysia Cup win apart – they haven’t been able to live up to that billing amidst the JDT trophy onslaught. To try to redress that balance, and with Tengku Amir Shah taking a real interest in affairs, Selangor have made concerted efforts to change the behind-the-scenes Management traumas that seem to have stunted any serious attempts at making Selangor the 2020’s powerhouse that their history and resources suggest they should be.
It is a long haul. The venue that Selangor call “home” for 2021 symbolises just how hard a re-vamp is going to be. With the barely 26-year old Shah Alam Stadium closed for the season for urgent maintenance, Selangor are forced to ground-share with PJ City at the freshly painted but still dilapidated Petaling Jaya Stadium.
German Coach, Kirsten Nietzel, had taken over from new Director of Football Michael Feichtenbeiner as Head Coach at Selangor with the unwritten promise that there will be opportunities for younger players to get proper game-time for the Red Giants.
The selection of Zikri Khalili for the visitors nods to that ambition, but otherwise the Selangor line up is full of experience with Malaysian Internationals Brendan Gan, Khairul Azhan, Syahmi Safari, wan Zack Heikal and Nor Hakkim Hassan alongside Singapore’s much-respected Safuwan Baharuddin, the prolific Ifedeyo Olusegun and Swiss Olympic player Oliver Buff one of three other imports. It is a strong Selangor selection.
By contrast, Bojan Hodak omits the very consistent Brazilian, Paulo Josue, from the starting XI with the ageless Indra Putra Mahayuddin getting the start as Kuala Lumpur City opt for solidity and a flexible 4-3-3 formation with Romel Morales given more licence to support da Sylva at the top end.
In the match, Kuala Lumpur City blunt the Selangor attack with Akram Mahinan omnipresent in the holding midfield role. That’s the base as Da Sylva – slowly picking up match-fitness – is on target with an unerring finish 1-on-1 with Kharul Azhan as Kuala Lumpur City score late on and threaten to secure their first EVER Professional League victory over Selangor. But that incredible wait will have to, well, wait because – in the last minute – Giancarlo Gallifuoco was pressured by Safuwan into conceding an own goal. Even then, fortune seemed against Kuala Lumpur City as Gallifuoco (GG) went down the other end to attack a free-kick and saw his header bounce back off the bar.
Honours even, but it’s progress, surely, when a League draw against Selangor is considered as bad as a defeat.
–17th March 2021–
Perak’s 2021 season took a huge turn for the worse before a ball was even kicked. Australian Coach, Mehmet Durakovic, resigned before the start of the campaign amidst rumour of a financial crisis at The Bos Gaurus. Kuala Lumpur City Director of Football, Chong Yee Fatt, was parachuted in – with Kuala Lumpur City’s blessing – by the Perak Management to take control of the club. But Perak arrived at Cheras Stadium with just one point and no goals scored from their first three games.
Two changes for the City Boys saw the return to the starting XI of both Paulo Josue and Hadin Azman. The red-shirted back 5 remained unchanged for the fourth consecutive game with Akram Mahinan parked in front of them.
Despite their poor start to the season, Perak came to battle. Any team with Leandro, Kenny Pallraj and Shakir Hamzah in their starting XI is going to be physically “up” for a challenge. But KL City matched Perak’s no-nonsense aggression as epitomized by Zhafri Yahyah standing up to Leandro in a 17th minute tussle that saw both men yellow-carded. From that moment, Kuala Lumpur City had earned the right to play all the football, and the reward was the all-important first goal of the match just before half time courtesy the increasingly important and influential Dominique da Sylva.
A vintage Kuala Lumpur City second half saw Romel Morales poach a goal right at the start of the stanza before adding a confident second from the right-hand side mid-way through the half. Kuala Lumpur City stood up to all Perak’s provocations even after former KL favourite Guilherme de Paula was introduced on 50 minutes.
A convincing 3-0 Kuala Lumpur City win saw a second clean sheet and a 3-match unbeaten run with the only negative being a second yellow of the campaign for defensive leader GG (Giancarlo Gallifuoco).
–20th March 2021–
Match Calendar restraints responding to the Covid-19 Public Health crisis meant that Bojan Hodak’s team travelled to the wide-open spaces of Melaka’s Hang Jebat Stadium for their 5th full game in just 20 days. Fatigue, allied to some interesting interpretations of the laws of football, would play a crucial role in the next 90 minutes.
The victory against Perak gave Bojan Hodak the confidence to name an unchanged starting XI for the trip to the space-ship like Hang Jebat Stadium. When populated, this stadium is simply electrifying. Empty, it seems to suck the energy from a game. And so it seemed for this 5th match of the season.
A shapeless first 45 minutes saw Kuala Lumpur City comfortable in defence, but lacking real imagination going forward against a typically robust Zainal Abidin Hassan (Melaka’s Coach) team. Kuala Lumpur City were defensively compact and repelled every attack that Melaka made; had an answer to every trick that Sonny Norde could produce and to every midfield thrust from Manny Ott; had an answer to the power of Alex and Melaka’s set-piece formats set to release Jang Suk-Won.
But then referee Shahrizan Solihim took centre stage. Shahrizan saw a tug that literally no-one else on the pitch, on the touchline, in the stadium or on Live streams at home could see. Penalty. Harsh (to say the least). Alex crashed home the resultant spot-kick.
To err once is forgivable, to err twice? A reprise from Shahrizan on the 80-minute mark saw him see a pull on a Melaka striker by GG that no-one else saw. A second penalty – but no yellow for Kuala Lumpur City’s Australian defensive leader – with the same Alex result.
Despite Zhafri Yahyah pouncing for an 89th minute consolation, Kuala Lumpur City departed up the North-South highway feeling desperately hard-done by following a 1-2 loss.
To be continued….