DEZ CORKHILL is:
KUALA LUMPUR CITY: STORY OF THE SEASON – (PART 4)
THE RUN IN:
RESULTS START TO REFLECT PERFORMANCE
7th August 2021
When Akram Mahinan signed for Kuala Lumpur at the start of the 2020 Premier League season it was seen as something of a coup. Capped 26-times by Malaysia, Akram is a successful product of the Bukit Jalil Sports School after which he graduated to Harimau Muda where he earned a reputation as an excellent defensive midfielder player.
A trophy-laden move to Johor Darul Ta’zim saw Akram depart after 4 years because, despite being a regular starter under Fandi Ahmad in 2013, he spent much of the next 3 seasons playing Premier League football with JDT II. A hugely successful move to his home state, Kedah, saw him play in a Malaysia Cup Final and win a second FA Cup winners’ medal before he accepted the chance to work as K Rajagopal’s captain at PKNS. After a difficult season, the offer to anchor Kuala Lumpur’s Premier league team was a welcome respite.
KUALA LUMPUR CITY 1 PJ CITY 0
Akram Mahinan and Irfan Zakaria returned to the starting line-up for the home match with the still awkward PJ City and both would play key roles in a welcome victory that ended a sequence of 5 consecutive draws for Kuala Lumpur City Football Club. Paulo Josue would score the only goal of the game – an ugly poke home from 2 yards – but it was the manner of the win that was most impressive.
Akram and Ryan Lambert completely controlled midfield allowing Zhafri, Paulo Josue, J Partiban and Morales to tear through PJ City’s defence time and time again only to fail to turn pressure into goals. Josue even had a generously-given penalty kick saved as KL City were forced to sweat for the last 10-minutes before securing the psychologically important 3-points.
This win for the home team ended any slight concerns that Kuala Lumpur City might be dragged into a relegation fight. Now they could relax ahead of a hugely tough run-in to the end of the season with matches looming against Malaysian football powerhouses Pahang, Terengganu, Kedah and JDT.
19th August 2021
It is virtually unheard of in South East Asian domestic football for a team to have success without a strong selection of foreigners. Malaysia adopts the 3+1+1 allowance of an ASEAN and an AFC eligible player alongside 3 other foreign registered players. Few would deny that the foreign contingent at Kuala Lumpur City for 2021 have been good value.
Australian Centre-back Giancarlo Gallifuoco brought the experience of training at Tottenham and Swansea as a youngster to add to AFC Champions League and A-League experience; Brazilian Paulo Josue has become a fixture at Cheras with over 100 appearances in his 5-seasons in The Capital and this season has had his best-ever goals return; whilst Colombian-born Romel Morales made a name for himself at Melaka and PKNS as an attacking midfielder before showing a real team ethic by taking on the centre-forwards role vacated by season ending injuries to Dominique da Sylva and Kyrian Nwabueze.
SRI PAHANG 0 KUALA LUMPUR CITY 2
A 2-week break gave the Kuala Lumpur new signings a chance to integrate into Bojan Hodak’s tactical thinking. For the trip to the Darul Makmur Stadium in Pahang, Bojan was able to name an unchanged line-up from the PJ City win which suggested that the Coach had settled on his “favoured” starting XI with improved “depth” on the bench meaning changes could be made in the latter stages of games without weakening the team.
Against Sri Pahang that strength-in-depth was apparent to all. The foreign “spine” of the team were barely troubled by a Sri Pahang team who had lost just one of their previous 5 matches. Mendoza was solid, Gallifuoco was vocal and dominant at centre back, Paulo Josue was at his creative best and he set up Romel Morales for a peach of an opening goal just after the interval. Zhafri Yahyah would add a second to enable Kuala Lumpur City to secure their first away win of the season.
Results were now properly matching performances; Darul Makmur was significant as it registered Kuala Lumpur City’s first away win of the season, their 6th clean sheet (second best in the League) and for the fact that Romel Morales was on target for his 4th goal of the season in his centre-forward role. Whisper it quietly, but Kuala Lumpur City were becoming a side other teams wanted to avoid.
28th August 2021
With less than a goal-a-game conceded in the first 19 matches of the season it was the defensive record of Kuala Lumpur City that had been the backbone of their respectable return to the Malaysia Super League. The goalkeeper and the Centre backs normally get the bulk of the credit in such a scenario, but the value of the full-backs needs to be acknowledged.
With Danial Ting an ever-present at left back, Kamal Azizi – signed from Terengganu – had played the majority of games on the right and the 28-year-old was in Bojan Hodak’s team for the visit of his home town club to Cheras.
KUALA LUMPUR CITY 1 TERENGGANU 0
“The Turtles” from Terengganu came into the match in need of all three points having just lost to Kedah to lose ground in the chase for qualification to the 2022 AFC Cup. The focus for Kuala Lumpur City was that the visit of Terengganu was the first of three hugely demanding fixtures for Kuala Lumpur City to end the season. Terengganu today, Kedah next week with the season finale at Johor.
For Kuala Lumpur City, no selection changes for the third straight game, and although Kevin Mendoza needed to make two excellent stops to maintain a third consecutive clean sheet for The City Boys, Kuala Lumpur City deserved their 1-0 win which came courtesy of another of those “ugly” Paulo Josue goals; a tap-in from 6-yards after J Partiban’s shot had been parried.
The records were starting to tumble at Cheras. This win ensured that Kuala Lumpur City would finish in the top half of the league for the first time in the Professional era whilst the defensive record was the second best in the League and, with Kedah to come, one more match unbeaten would result in the first ever unbeaten home season for Kuala Lumpur City.
4th September 2021
Zhafri Yahya had served his football apprenticeship with PKNS and Selangor but saw no real opportunity to progress into a star-laden Selangor first team at the end of the 2016 season. A move to Premier League Kuala Lumpur would give the then-21-year-old a chance of first team football at Cheras (or Selayang, as was KL’s home in 2017) and the aggressive, tactically aware, consistent Zhafri has hardly been out of the team since.
In his five seasons, Zhafri has accumulated over 100 appearances, been a key part of two Promotion teams, and has proven to be a fabulous acquisition for the club. For the Kedah match, Zhafri was selected by Bojan Hodak for the 20th consecutive match. His disciplined performances as either as a wide or central midfielder has impressed The Coach to such an extent that he was one of only four players involved in every single KL match of the season to date.
KUALA LUMPUR CITY 2 KEDAH 1
Kuala Lumpur City were given an early boost in their chase for an unbeaten home League record by generous early penalty award (which again illustrated how fortunes do tend to equal out over a whole season). Romel Morales took full advantage to smash home the early penalty, and then J Partiban delivered a lovely cross from the left for the recalled Safee Sali to poach his first goal of the campaign.
Tchetche Kipre scored a wonderful lobbed goal to end Kevin Mendoza’s 340-minute-long clean sheet but the Kuala Lumpur City defence were determined to hold onto their proud home record of not conceding more than 1-goal in a home game.
The 2-1 victory for Kuala Lumpur City meant that – for the first time in their HISTORY – the team went through an entire League campaign with an unbeaten home record and the concession of just 6 goals at Cheras.
12th September 2021
Bojan Hodak’s task at Kuala Lumpur City is a long-term one mixed with the need for immediate results. A visit to the 8-time Champions, Johor Darul Ta’zim, would test the depth of Hodak’s squad to the limit. Injuries meant that youngsters Izreen Izwandy and Arif Syaqirin made the starting line-up for the most difficult away test of the campaign. Up front the rejuvenated Safee Sali made just his second start of the season.
JOHOR DARUL TA’ZIM 2 KEDAH 1
Kuala Lumpur City supporters feared the worst for the (on paper) weakened side when JDT scored a lovely goal inside 15 minutes via Nazmi Faiz Mansor. Kuala Lumpur City’s defence hadn’t conceded a goal in the opening 20 minutes of a match in any other game this season, and how the test was really on. Kuala Lumpur City came through the test.
A sign of the changing of the guard came on 25 minutes when Safee took a short corner for Arif to back-heel into the path of the on-the-move Izreen. The net bulged and Kuala Lumpur City had been rewarded with a wonderful, and deserved equalizer. Thereafter Kuala Lumpur City’s “reserves” matched The Champions stride for stride. JDT defender Mauricio was very fortunate not to be red-carded, and Kuala Lumpur City’s Dan Ting went close with a header. At the other end Mendoza saved from the ever-dangerous Bergson da Silva, though the 23-goal man had been really well shackled by the Nik Shahrul/Irfan Zakaria central defensive combination.
JDT got the winner. Champions have a way of winning tight games, and JDT got the winner when Safiq Rahim’s cross was turned into his own goal by Nik Shahrul. But generally, Kuala Lumpur City stood up to the JDT test, and – even in defeat – went away from the spectacular Sultan Ibrahim Stadium with reputations enhanced.
So, a best ever League finish for Kuala Lumpur City in the professional era, and encouragement in the performance of the “kids” at Johor, but in the end, it was a defeat against The Champions and the end of an 11-game unbeaten run.
Kuala Lumpur City now have a base upon which to build – starting with the Malaysia Cup, and a 10,500-day hoodoo to overcome. It’s that long (nearly 29 years) since Kuala Lumpur last made it to the knockout stages of the world’s third oldest football competition.
KUALA LUMPUR CITY – 2021 Malaysia Super League: