Malaysia Super League | Larkin Stadium | Sat 13 Feb | 9pm
Battle of the champions
The match offers both teams a potential head start in the 2016 Malaysia Super League (MSL) title race. The only problem? There can be just one winner and both teams could not have asked for tougher starts to their seasons.
READ ALSO FFT's MSL Preview: Johor Darul Ta’zim
On paper, the 2015 Malaysia Cup winners are Johor Darul Ta’zim’s (JDT) closest competitors and the neutrals simply couldn’t ask for a more exciting start to the season. The match also serves as a charity shield clash but with stakes so high, you would forgive the players for not feeling charitable mood at all during the 90 minutes.
The Southern Tigers not only have home ground advantage but can take comfort from the fact their preparations are further ahead. JDT's 2016 season already started in the AFC Champions League, where JDT bowed out 3-0 on penalties against Muangthong United in the second round of qualifying.
JDT kept the Thai club at bay for 120 minutes, even threatening an upset occasionally at the other end, with a performance that raised eyebrows in Southeast Asia – a performance that tells you just why Malaysian football is child’s play for this ambitious club.
In contrast, Selangor’s pre-season form raises questions of whether they will be in their best shape for the opener. Two losses in Thailand and a surprise 1-0 defeat to Penang followed wins over Kuala Lumpur and Sarawak.
While Zainal Abidin Hassan couldn’t possibly complain with the quality at his disposal, the former Pahang coach needs to get the team into its groove or risk them falling behind and having to chase the game.
READ ALSO FFT's MSL Preview: Selangor
With so many selection options available to Zainal, it will be interesting to see which players gets the nod to start the match for Selangor. Where will Razman Roslan play, and who will he replace in Selangor’s already-strong backline? Meanwhile, Malaysia Cup hero Ahmad Hazwan Bakri may not even start given the arrivals of R. Gopinathan and Mauro Olivi.
Hafiz Kamal and Nazmi Faiz Mansor are the likeliest pairing in the engine room and they will face an acid test coming up against JDT’s Hariss Harun and Safiq Rahim, both of whom are in a league of their own.
JDT will be without injury-prone Junior Eldstal who picked up a hamstring injury in training. New Argentine signing Juan Martin Lucero could be included on the home bench after taking part in Wednesday's training sessions. It is unlikely Mario Gomez will throw him straight into action considering the quality already at his disposal.
Home-grown Azinee Taib did well against Muangthong and could be handed another start for the defending champions.
Key battle: Safiq Rahim (JDT) vs Hafiz Kamal (Selangor)
The two national midfielders have put on a show when pitted against each in the past. Hafiz, a new signing from Pahang, even won the midfield battle against his more established counterpart on several occasions when the Elephants clashed with JDT in recent years.
Both are deadly from set-pieces and often charged with orchestrating their sides' forays forward. However, while the mobile Safiq tends to pick up the ball and move it forward himself, Hafiz often sits in the middle of the park dictating play with his passing.
Outshining Safiq would also offer Hafiz and his midfield partner Nazmi Faiz Mansor the chance to impress Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee, who is expected to be in the stands.
Fact and figures
- Selangor have not beaten JDT since their 2-1 win in the 2013 FA Cup quarter-final first leg, where the Southern Tigers later reversed the score and won 4-2 on penalties in the second leg.
- JDT have not lost to Selangor at home in the league since May 2010, winning the previous two encounters.
- Only Felda United have defeated JDT in regulation time at Larkin Stadium since September 2013, doing it twice last year.
- Having won the last two editions, JDT bid to be the first team to win a hattrick of MSL titles.
JDT 2 Selangor 1: The Southern Tigers have looked on top of their game, but Selangor’s resolute defence will limit their chances and keep the scoreline low.