TEN THINGS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED ON KL CITY’S HISTORIC NIGHT
The 2021 Malaysia Cup Final at Bukit Jalil on Tuesday (30th November) was – from a Kuala Lumpur City point of view – just about perfect. A soak-and-strike match strategy worked to precision with the second half goals for long-serving Zhafri Yahya and Paulo Josue; Kevin Mendoza showed exactly why Bojan Hodak demanded KL City sign a strong goalkeeper at the start of the season as the Philippines International back-stopped a disciplined team performance to edge out pre-match favourites Johor Darul Tazim.
The goals will be remembered for years to come; Mendoza’s non “man-of-the-match” award will be celebrated; Bojan Hodak’s tactics will be lauded and the manner in which Kenny Pal Raj and Giancarlo Gallifuoco managed to keep the outstanding Bergson da Silva relatively quiet should be front-of-mind for all those who follow the game.
However, there were ten other things that might have escaped your notice – or deliberately been ignored.
1. TMJ’s MAGNAMINOUS PRE-MATCH COMMENTS
His Royal Highness, “TMJ” – the man behind the rise and dominance of Johor Darul Ta’zim – has been vocal in his frustration for many years that no genuine, football-focused rivals have emerged to challenge the JDT hegemony. He’d want to beat any such rivals who did emerge, but he has said on many occasions that other clubs need to have the ambition to reach the levels that JDT have achieved for the past 8 years.
His respect for the achievements of KL City this year both on AND off the pitch was there for all to see before this final and suggest that he may sense that, handled correctly, KL City just might be a team who can develop into that rival.
Generous Facebook and Twitter posts were hugely respectful of the work KL City have done, and CEO Stanley Bernard modestly shared with me a personal voice message sent by His Royal Highness after the semi-final victory over Melaka in which he praised the rapid development of the Club on and off the pitch since Stan became CEO on January 1st.
And to illustrate that these were not mere “words”, post-match handshakes and congratulations were in order as TMJ took the defeat fairly on the chin. It was a revealing and encouraging sequence of posts.
2. THE PRE-MATCH 100 ANNIVERSARY TROPHY
As the Bukit Jalil stadium lights darkened some 30 minutes before kick-off, those in attendance were lucky to witness a simple but beautifully judged presentation of the gorgeous Malaysia Cup trophy by four of the towering giants of the Malaysia game: Datuk Santokh Singh, Datuk Wira Soh Chin Ann, Datuk M. Karathu and Dato’ Jamal Nasir.
The delivery of the trophy and the subsequent lap of honour for the magnificent Trophy was tasteful, respectful, nicely choreographed and a fine way to open the nights proceedings.
3. TEAM LINE UP FEATURING NIK SHAHRUL and IRFAN ZAKARIA SHIRTS
When the teams lined up for their pre-match photo, it was a nice touch to see the shirts of Irfan Zakaria and Nik Shahrul both displayed by the team. Both, arguably, could have started the match were it not for serious injuries received in the Malaysia Cup that sees them both on crutches. The togetherness of the team was on display. Nice touch.
4. JDT’s 3-4-1-2 FORMATION
I doubt anyone predicted that JDT would change their formation to adapt to KL City’s expected “sit-deep” tactics. Johor’s domestic record this season is simply incredible with just one defeat in 32 games, 11 goals conceded and 69 goals scored.
JDT normally let other teams worry about them and the vibrant attacking 4-3-3 formation that has served them so well for several seasons. And yet, for the final, they changed it around. A back-3 guarded by Naxto Insa and Afiq Fazail using S Kunanlan and Arif Aiman as attack-minded wing-backs with Leandro in a floating role behind Bergson and Safawi Rasid.
IF Bergson’s early effort that hit the post had gone in then the tactical change might have been deemed a success; IF Mauricio’s header hadn’t been expertly parried by Kevin Mendoza midway through the first half then it might have been different; If Arif or Kunanlan had been able to make their crosses count then it might have been another night of Glory for Johor. But it wasn’t. KL City remained in solid defensive formation and snuffed out most of the real threats to such an extent that JDT Coach Benjamin Mora changed his tactics to the more usual back 4. That’s when KL City were able to strike.
5. THE REFEREE
Razlan Joffri Ali was selected as referee for this match. You were probably unaware of his presence on the pitch as he made hardly any wrong calls, was consistent in his decision-making and allowed the game to flow. When KL City tried to slow the game down too much, he rightly ushered them to speed things up. His yellow cards were correct and justified and his game-management was, simply, excellent.
Razlan is an ex-professional player with Sime Darby and – in a season when referees have, again, come under the spotlight – was simply invisible on the big occasion. And that’s exactly how you want your referee to be. Invisible.
6. BENJAMIN MORA’S PITCH-SIDE TACTICS BOARD
As frustration crept into the Johor Darul Ta’zim team 20 minutes into the second half, Benjamin Mora used a tactics board at pitch-side to illustrate to his substitutes exactly what he wanted to change. There are numerous benefits, of course, to using a tactics board, but this was so public that viewers watching at home could ascertain that JDT’s pending substitutions were going to change their formation from the 3-4-1-2 to their more usual 4-3-3.
7. BROADCAST COVERAGE’S LAST GASP RESCUE OF THE OPENING GOAL
The host Broadcaster came within a whisker of committing Broadcast’s cardinal sin. Missing a goal.
As Kevin Mendoza took a long punt forward towards Paulo Josue, the host broadcaster was showing a replay of a prior incident; As Josue’s flicked header found J Partiban, the host broadcaster was still on the replay; Partiban just managed to keep the ball in play and got himself one-on-one with JDT’s Matt Davies whilst the host broadcaster approached the end of its replay; As “Parti” beat his man and crossed, the host broadcaster Director saw the danger and switched from replay to live images just as Zhafri Yahya guided the ball past Farizal Marlias for the opening goal.
It was a close-run thing, but the host broadcaster just managed to avoid an embarrassing moment and KL City’s goal was shown live. Multiple replays would follow with the whole move, but it was a scary moment for the TV Director who managed to rescue the situation just-in-time.
8. THE “BOJAN’ CHANT
The KL City support, for good reason, have a limited repertoire of songs. Various multi-lingual versions of “KL ‘til I die” being foremost amongst them. But a new refrain echoed around Bukit Jalil after the opening goal by Zhafri Yahya.
“Bojan, Bojan, Bojan”. The incredible job Bojan Hodak and his Coaching staff had done in guiding an injury-ravaged team to the Cup Final was in itself worthy of praise, but now his tactics had worked to such an extent that KL City were leading the mighty Johor Darul Ta’zim in the City Boys’ first Final in 32 years.
As the “Bojan” chants grew loader and more convincing, there was recognition of a Master Craftsman’s work, and a wonderful reflection on the players who had carried out his instructions to a “T”. And then KL City scored a second through Paulo Josue and the KL City end exploded into joy.
9. SHUKOR ADAN’S LAST-MINUTE INTRODUCTION
As the clock ticked down KL City took the sting out of the game by slowing the game down, taking time over re-starts and generally managing the clock. Kevin Mendoza was still required to make one fine save and safely clutch two towering corner kicks in those safe hands of his, but with Romel Morales and Josue as the “out” ball, and Ryan Lambert able to keep possession in midfield, KL City safely negotiated the period from the second goal on 74 minutes and proceeded into the four minutes added on by referee Razlan at the end of the 90 minutes.
And then a red-shirted number 12 appeared on the touch-line. Shukor Adan. In his last game as a professional, the multi-trophied, multi-capped leader of Malaysian football for so long was making his last professional appearance before embarking upon what is hoped to be an equally successful Coaching career.
At 2-0, Bojan could afford to gift Shukor a wonderful moment to end his playing career. Shukor was brought on for Kenny Pal Raj who had given his all in this game so that when the final whistle blew, Shukor Adan – one of the most significant players in Malaysia’s football history – was on the field of play to pick up a Malaysia Cup Winners’ medal.
What awareness from the Coach to offer this significant display of respect for one of Malaysian football’s greatest servants.
10. KEVIN MENDOZA’Z INSTRAGRAM “EXPLODES”
After the trophy had been, eventually, triumphally raised by Paulo Josue and Bojan Hodak, and after a gleeful lap-of-honour for KL City in front of their disbelieving fans, there was a little stirring in the players families section. Kevin Mendoza’s Instagram “follows” exploded.
From 3,000 before the start of the match, by full-time there were 17,000. By the time the trophy was lifted his “follows” were up to 23,000, now over 120K and growing.
The venerable old Competition may have reached its 100th year, but this was a very 21st century reaction to a player who had a starring role in bringing the Cup to the capital City for just the 4th time ever, and for the first time in 32 years.