The countdown is on for the 2022 Malaysia Super League season. This weekend the considerable challenge of Johor Darul Ta’zim in Malaysia’s Charity Shield match-up, followed by the League opener against Selangor.
Football is back and last Thursday night we got our first real glimpse of the new team being put together by Bojan Hodak when the Malaysia Cup Champions – yes, let’s repeat it – Malaysia Cup Champions, Kuala Lumpur City met Negeri Sembilan in the now annual Piala Menteri Wilayah Prihatin
A pre-match Veterans game and a showing off of the Piala Malaysia Trophy to the fans was followed by a 0-2 defeat at the hands of a newly promoted Negeri Sembilan side who look to have assembled a strong squad for the forthcoming campaign.
Negeri deserved the win with their goals coming from Matheus Alves in the second minute, and a Herold Goulon penalty in the last minute. It was a sobering wake-up call for those who believe that Malaysia Cup success will inevitably be the springboard to something greater.
Here are five things that I observed from Thursday night.
IT IS GOING TO BE A VERY TOUGH LEAGUE
Negeri Sembilan – along with Sarawak United – were one of the promoted teams last year and on this showing, they will be a far stronger team than either of the relegated sides; UiTM and penniless Perak. Investment in the likes of Goulon, Alves plus Tajikistan International David Mawutor and Philippines Omid Nazari give The Deer Men a strong imported spine which local purchases like Annas Rahmat, Sean Selvaraj and Khair Jones will complement.
It’s a strong looking line-up K Devan has assembled – and they’re not the only ones who have invested. Terengganu added Kipre Tchetche and Kpah Sherman plus Manny Ott; Sabah went to Kedah for Baddrol, Bakhtiar and Rizal Ghazali and to Melaka for Khairul Fahmi; Melaka under the highly rated Risto Vidakovic have invested in Justin Baas and Fadhli Shas defensively whilst goal-scorer Ifedayo makes a return to Hang Jebat.
Indeed, just about every club – including 8-time Champion Johor Darul Ta’zim, of course – has made signings that make sense. Foreign and local moves alike. This season there will be no teams stranded at the bottom of the table. This SHOULD be a really competitive League where only Petaling Jaya City look as though they might struggle – but I wrote the same about PJ last year and look how they performed.
3-AT-THE BACK IS AN OPTION
We saw Bojan Hodak experiment with a 3-4-3 formation for the Negeri Sembilan match with Irfan Zakaria returning from injury to partner Kenny PallRaj and Giancarlo Gallifuoco in the back 3. Muhammed Faudzi came on as replacement for Irfan in the second half. Add Nik Shahrul to that quartet and it looks as though there are plenty of options at centre back should Bojan persist with a three-at-the-back option.
Such a formation puts a lot of onus rests on the wing-backs to operate up the full length of the pitch. Against Negeri, new signing Declan Lambert impressed in the right wing-back role, and nearly all of Kuala Lumpur’s best moments came from his crosses from the right. On the left, newly purchased Nabil had less luck going forward which meant that there was – for this game – a slight imbalance in the attack. But there were enough good moments with the new system to suggest that 3-at-the- back will be a useful tool in Bojan’s back pocket – especially as both Danny ting and Kamal Azizi (the starting full-backs in the Cup Final) like to get forward.
CELEBRATING BEFORE A MATCH CAN BE A DISTRACTION
It’s always dangerous to celebrate an event before a match as it will inevitably cause disruption and a break in players’ concentration levels. And so it proved on Thursday. After a disrupted warm-up session that took place behind the goal as the veterans’ match was taking place, there was further distraction with multiple – justifiable – showing off of the Malaysia Cup to the fans. Photos were snapped, players were smiling and focus on the match in hand was secondary.
Last season, KL City didn’t concede in the first 15 minutes of any match. Less than 2-minutes into this game and KL were a goal down. Negeri’s Mawutor got free down the KL left to cross, Irfan slightly mis controlled and Matheus Alves swept in a shot past Kevin Mendoza. And for the next 20 minutes, KL City were on the back-foot.
In the end, KL city never recovered from that early body-blow. Whilst Hadin Azman came closest to an equalizer after great work from Declan Lambert, it always seemed as though the red shirts were playing catch up from a disrupted pre-match routine and Mendoza was by far the busier goalkeeper. At the professional level such details as pre-match preparations can make a huge difference.
VETERANS MATCH WAS GREAT FUN
On the “plus” side of the night, the involvement of the KL Veterans in a match against Selangor before the main event was a great success. A keenly contested match saw Selangor sneak it by the odd goal, but for former heroes from both teams strutting their stuff on a well-maintained Cheras pitch was a feel-good factor of the night.
More of this please – and more profiles of those who played as fans like me who weren’t around to witness the teams of old would love to know more about the players and their achievements.
THE NEW BOYS
As well as a new 3-4-3 playing system, Coach Bojan Hodak was able to give the KL public a first view of his new signings. As mentioned earlier both Nabil and Malaysia-eligible Declan Lambert were given 90-minutes as wing-backs whilst Muhammed Faudzi, signed from Terengganu, had 20 minutes on the right-side of the back 3 in the second half.
Most attention was on Congolese striker Kevin Koubemba who showed that he’s a hard-working striker who grew in confidence as the game progressed with link-up play between himself and Zhafri Yahyah in particular really encouraging.
It’s by no means ideal to lose a match, but in terms of tempering expectations from fans whilst also giving valuable pre-season playing time to the squad, welcoming back Irfan Zakaria from a bad injury and experimenting with a new formation there were enough “positives” to take from the defeat.
Next up are Johor Darul Ta’zim whom will no doubt be chasing revenge for November’s Cup Final defeat. But after that match then the Malaysia Cup needs to be banished from the memory banks and the KL City of 2022 needs to create its own moments of magic.