Dez Corkhill, Managing Editor of Astro Arena and a regular Asian football commentator, analyses the incredible season that saw Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) become the new league champions, albeit in a less than straightforward way.
Title undecided until the last ten minutes of the season
In the 82nd minute of the last round of the 22-match Malaysian Super League season, a penalty at Shah Alam converted by PKNS' Korean striker Kim Dong-Chan finally decided the destiny of the 2014 title. The goal meant that Selangor would not get all three points in their match with PKNS they needed to topple JDT from top spot – even if Johor had conceded a late equaliser at Sarawak. JDT were the league champions for the first time.
In the closest race imaginable, Selangor and JDT went into the final match of the season with a point separating them, but Johor faced the difficult prospect of needing to win in Kuching, whilst Selangor had the "easier" task of securing points against their already relegated state and stadium rivals PKNS. The fact that big spending JDT won the title was about the only thing that went according to script during a truly entertaining season, which more than any other helped promote the domestic football league and elevate it in terms of popularity above all other televised competitions. According to information and measurement company Nielsen, over 6,000,000 total viewers watched the Super League broadcasts in Malaysia over the course of the season.
Johor's purchasing power
This was a season when Johor were supposed to romp home to the title having secured the services of a crack Spanish coach in Cesar Jimenez and Argentine star Pablo Aimar. The defending champions, the LionsXII of Singapore, lost their three star players of 2013 – Haris Harun, Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak – and were holed beneath the water-line. Selangor, having lost Mahali Jasuli, Amri Yahyah and Asraruddin Putra to Johor, were supposedly in a desperate state. Pahang, having lost Amirul Hadi Zainal to the same Johor team, were supposedly mortally weakened. Terengganu, who had undergone a complete revamp under new coach Abdul Rahman Ibrahim, were supposedly in transition. And let’s not forget about Kelantan having lost just about everyone.
With all these factors considered, this season should have been a breeze for the Southern Tigers. They had cherry picked the best from rivals around the country, picked up some of the brightest talent from Harimau Muda, and signed globally recognised players. What could go wrong?
Football, though, is the most magnificent sport in the world for a reason. Johor's plundering of talent raised hackles the length and breadth of the country and, particularly when Aimar was in the team, Johor found themselves on the receiving end of some highly committed performances.The fact that it went so close to the wire was testament to the resilience of the rest of the league.
From the season opener, a Perak team decimated by players leaving for Selangor put up a stern fight and JDT found themselves relieved to start with a 2-0 win. But a defeat against T-Team in Kuala Terengganu, a concession of a two-goal lead at home to the Lions, a last minute 3-2 loss at Pahang, and a second defeat in Terengganu told Johor that "the others" were going to put up a fight. At the mid-point of the season, ATM, Sarawak and PKNS had all taken points off all-star Johor. This was not the master plan.
Bojan & key changes
And then came Bojan Hodak – unofficially at first, but then formally introduced into the coaching role at the expense of Jimenez. Bojan's intimate knowledge of the players turned things round. Where Jimenez was still learning, Bojan already knew the reliable qualities of Haris Harun, Shakir Shaari, Asraruddin Putra, Fadhli Shas and Daudsu Jamaluddin, who all became the spine of his team. Draws started to become wins.
Two other changes in personnel were also crucial. There was the harsh – but ultimately correct – jettisoning of Baihakki Khaizan on loan to the Lions followed by the introduction of Marcus Antonio at the back, and the signing from Argentina, Jorge Perreya Diaz. Diaz was sensational. A hat-trick at Jalan Besar was the highlight, but his all-round interplay was exceptional.
There was some luck here and there such as the own goal winner against Perak, the non-penalty in Singapore that produced an equaliser in a game JDT went on to win, and the capitulation by Terengganu who were 2-0 up inside 20 minutes in Johor. But the ship was steadied; Figueroa, Amri and the rest were scoring enough to compensate for the odd defensive lapse. Of the nine matches played after the turnaround of fixtures, Johor dropped points only at ATM, and at home to Pahang after a last-minute goalkeeping error. The thoroughbred racehorse was in a steady gallop for home.
When it came to the crunch, many expected Kelantan and Sarawak – in Kuching – to be huge hurdles. If racehorses could jump, then that's exactly what Johor did. A three-nil thumping of a strangely lacklustre Kelantan followed by a hard earned 1-0 win in Kuching in the final game courtesy of Diaz gave Johor the title – regardless of the score in Shah Alam. A state holiday to celebrate the football crown was in order.
Squad depth the key
So what was the difference? In two words: squad depth. For JDT, perm any two internationals from Subramaniam, Fadhli Shas, Aiduil Zafuan – never mind Baihakki or Marcos Antonio – at centre-back. When Figueroa missed his one game, Norshahrul Idlan Talaha or Safee Sali was available. Mahali, Daudsu and Asraruddin are all international full-backs. Shakir, Safiq Rahim, Haris and Amirul Hadi competed for two places in centre midfield, never mind previously having Aimar available. When the likes of Nazrin Nawi and Irfan Fazail are bit-part players, you have a squad with eons more depth than any other in the country.
In comparison, when Selangor's Paulo Rangel was suspended for two games following a (harsh) straight red in Terengganu, Mehmet Durakovic' side could not find the net in both games. Add their gruelling AFC Cup campaign to a thin squad, and the Red Giants deserved huge praise for simply taking us to the final game.
Pahang effectively played their season with a fifteen-man rotation – and this told in a poor run. The wheels started to come off in a 4-1 loss in Singapore when three goals were conceded in the last 15 minutes. And defeats at home to title rivals Selangor and Terengganu also hurt badly. The FA Cup win over Felda was a very tasty consolation, though, for Zainal Abidin Hassan who seamlessly took over after Ron Smith decided that this was not the place for him to further his coaching reputation.
Lack of depth, impatience and volume of games hurt Kelantan. The AFC Cup campaign is a really big strain on resources and with a new squad bedding in, a "not-too-bad" start to the season was ruined by a 4-0 loss at revitalised Sime Darby. That was too much for the powers-that-be in Kota Bahru and after less than half a season with a brand new squad, we saw the end of Steve Darby and the introduction of George Boateng as new head coach. If it's experience Boateng is looking for, Kelantan is the place to learn it. After seven years of non-stop progress, there is a lot of work to be done to keep the Red Warriors at the top of the sport.
Terengganu threatened to challenge, but a mid-season overhaul of foreign forwards upset their rhythm. The pairing of the dynamic Mustapha Dabo and Javier Estupinan resulted in the Australian Mario Karlovic being sidelined. Having led the table after 11 matches with seven wins and 22 points, the changes in personnel coincided with a dramatic change in form. From a team that conceded just six goals in the first half of the season (three of them at Sime Darby), Terengganu leaked 22 in their final eleven matches including eight in a disastrous three days – a 4-1 home loss to Selangor reduced to 10-men following a red card for Rangel, and a 4-3 defeat in Johor despite leading 2-0 after 20 minutes.
The LionsXII never managed to overcome the loss of Haris, Shahril and Bai. Fandi Ahmad's gung ho approach was great to watch until the squad ran out of steam in the last third of the season. Injuries to Isa Halim and Khairul Nizam did not help as well. However, I believe it was the additional foreigner allowed for the teams this season that was a key reason why LionsXII – who don't select foreign signings – were off the pace. The criticism on the squad seems a bit over the top to me, as Fandi's team were never less than entertaining and were the unlucky recipients of several really tough calls going against them. Penalties awarded against them against Terengganu and Johor were extraordinarily harsh.
On the last matchday, five of the six games played had a direct result on either the title or relegation. PKNS were already down. Their form went to pieces after a triple blow of an injury to Karlo Primorac, the disappearance of Indonesian Hamka Hamzah, and the transfer of Nazmi Faiz Mansor to Selangor. A run of just one win in 15 saw them relegated with a game to play. And this after they started the season with three wins in the first four matches. Troubled times at the club team, though there was enough spirit to beat the LionsXII and deny Selangor in the last two matches of the season.
The other team relegated were T-Team. What a strange season for Azraai Khor and co. Involved in the infamous FA Cup chapter at Johor where they refused to come out for the second half due to an incident in the tunnel – they were promptly handed a 3-0 loss for that – they were awarded points in the league standings when Perak played an ineligible player against them. T-Team were never in the bottom two until the final match of the season. Then, having lost their way with just two wins in 10, they could not find a way past the LionsXII and had to listen to the news filtering through from Selayang and Ipoh that ATM and Perak had picked up valuable points.
The LionsXII had also, somehow, became involved in the relegation argument. Going into that last game of the season at T-Team, Lions needed a point to ensure the "understanding" between the FAS and the FAM that they would not be relegated was not tested. They secured a 1-0 win to end a dreadful run of form that had seen them lose six of eight games, and be sucked into a relegation argument with T-Team, Perak, ATM and PKNS. That lousy run coincided with the return of Baihakki – on loan – from JDT. Safuwan Baharudin was moved out of the back four to accommodate Baihakki in a move welcomed by most at the time. In the end, it was only after Safuwan was returned to his central defensive duties that the Lions looked defensively secure.
Impact of the April transfer window
The value of being able to change players in the April transfer window cannot be downplayed, as it was this that saved ATM and Perak from relegation. Perak were down and out in April – bottom of the table and docked points for playing an ineligible player. Confidence rock bottom for a team that was new and with the best of its 2013 team having moved to Selangor at the end of the previous season. Abu Bakar Fadzim had been promoted from the President’s Cup team to oversee a youth policy, but results were going badly. Then came the introduction of giant Montenegran striker Milan Purovic up front, the scheming Nigerian Abdulafees Abdulsalam as the playmaker, and Brazilian Marcos Tulio alongside Nasir Basharrudin in the heart of midfield. With former coach Karl-Heinz Weigang also offering advice from the sidelines, the change in results was dramatic. Just two defeats in the last nine matches, with a 2-0 win in Singapore topped off by a 3-0 home win over Pahang, saw Perak escape relegation.
And ATM also played the April transfer window well. Sathianathan's team suffered horribly as both international defenders Amiridzwan Taj and K. Reuben had season-ending injuries very early on, while Marlon James retired from football due to niggling injuries throughout the season. It wasn't until reinforcements came in April in the shape of Park Young Ho and Fabrice Noel that Sathia's ageing team at last began to turn their season round. An unbeaten five-match run at the end of the season eventually saw them stay in the top league by the skin of their teeth.
Sime Darby's change of three foreigners in the April transfer window saw them go on a run yielding just three defeats in the second half of the season. The introduction of Mateo Roskam and Mahmoud Amnah gave them a better attacking presence and a remarkable fifth placed finish.
And so a season that started with nearly everyone tipping JDT for the title ended with them securing the crown, but that wasn't the whole story of a season that ebbed and flowed throughout. Pahang and Terengganu thrilled us at times; Perak and ATM performed the great escapes; the LionsXII entertained their fans as well as plunged them into depression with a late season slump; and Paulo Rangel was the stand-out player, as without his goals, Selangor would have struggled.
Six million viewers on Astro Arena watched the Super League. It's entertaining, dramatic, and full of intrigue. JDT are top of the tree for now, and with the Malaysia Cup starting on August 2nd, they are there to be knocked off their perch.
(Pictures Credit: Ahmad Ridhuan, Zulkifly Abdul Hamid, Khairul Zaman, Azam Muhamad Subri / www.asiana.my)