Felda United vs Johor Darul Ta’zim – Can the Fighters push title race down to the wire?
Felda United’s moment of truth
Only one club has looked capable of challenging Johor Darul Ta’zim’s (JDT) Malaysia Super League (MSL) title quest and Felda United’s mettle will be tested as they welcome the Southern Tigers to Malaysia’s only purpose-built football stadium for the first time.
Mario Gomez’s men are searching for their third straight league title – a feat never achieved before in Malaysian football – and three points on Wednesday will all but guarantee yet another honour for the fast-growing club.
JDT, however, will not take Felda lightly. The Fighters have proven to be a bogey team for the 2015 AFC Cup winners
The Southern Tigers head to Jengka carrying a four-point lead over Felda with just four matches to go. JDT will go seven points clear with a win and with only matches against Terengganu, T-Team and Selangor remaining, it would be a major surprise if the club did not defend its championship.
JDT, however, will not take Felda lightly. The Fighters have proven to be a bogey team for the 2015 AFC Cup winners. JDT’s 2-1 win in the reverse fixture earlier this season was the club’s only win over Felda in the last 12 months.
Felda, who spent much of the first half of the season atop the standings, defeated JDT 2-1 at home in the league and 3-2 on aggregate in the Malaysia Cup quarter-finals last year.
The Fighters also need to overcome a 10-goal deficit should the clubs finish level on points come the end of the season.
JDT will have the least problems in this department due to their squad depth. The Southern Tigers will be fresh and are expected to make 11 changes to the side held 1-1 by PKNS in the Malaysia Cup.
Twin terrors Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Juan Martin Lucero, who have bagged 27 goals between them, skipper Safiq Rahim, midfield workhorse Hariss Harun and defensive rock Marcos Antonio will be raring to return to the line-up and should these influential players strike a chord, Felda are in for a long night.
The Fighters have not had the luxury of keeping players fresh with similar rotation, but Irfan Bakti Abu Salim did rest six players – including Liberian internationals Zah Rahan Krangar and Francis Forkey Doe, who is tied with Lucero on 15 goals for the golden boot award – against Negri Sembilan in the Malaysia Cup on Friday.
The Cup tie, however, came at a cost as in-form winger Christie Jayaseelan was forced off at the hour mark and will miss the rest of the season following surgery on his jaw on Sunday. Felda are also without box-to-box midfielder Lutfulla Turaev due to a knee injury.
Key Battles – Zah Rahan Krangar vs Hariss Harun
This is where Felda have often won the match in previous encounters and Krangar orchestrates the midfield so well, he is arguably the best central midfielder in the MSL.
This season, Krangar has a more than able midfield partner in Turaev and the duo have often terrorised opponents, but the Uzbeki will not take the field on Wednesday.
Turaev’s absence could ease the load of Hariss Harun, often labelled among the best holding midfielders in Southeast Asia, and allow former Malaysian skipper Safiq Rahim to venture forward.
Shukor Adan vs Juan Martin Lucero
Shukor is among the finest local centre-backs in the MSL and is the glue that holds Felda together at the back. Remarkable for a man that turns 37 in September.
The former Malaysian skipper, who is still being persuaded to make an international return following Aidil Zafuan Aidil Zafuan’s early retirement, has come out on top in many duels this season, but wouldn’t would have faced a forward the calibre of MSL joint-topscorer Lucero.
Lucero did not star against Felda in the reverse fixture in March, but that was largely due to him needing to adapt to Malaysian football following a move from Argentina just a couple of weeks earlier.
Irfan Bakti Abu Salim started the season as the oldest coach in the league – a label now belonging to Perak’s Karl-Heinze Weigang – and is proving he still has what it takes to outshine his younger peers.
Backed by a big budget, the 65-year-old has turned Felda from a second-tier side to title contenders in just three seasons. In his first season, Felda earned promotion from the Malaysia Premier League and finished runners-up to Pahang in the Malaysia Cup.
After missing out on challenging for any trophy last year, Irfan has set a target of delivering at least one this season.
Mario Gomez, however, will be unfazed with Felda’s rise. The Argentine has earned praises for strengthening JDT’s already imposing squad since his arrival in April last year. Gomez, who previously coached Hong Kong’s South China, has made JDT more dynamic, resilient and mature.
Gomez took JDT to the AFC Cup title last year and has already won the FA Cup this season.
Facts and figures
- Diaz and Lucero have scored 63 per cent (27 out of 43) of JDT’s league goals this year.
- JDT’s defence has only been breached 10 times in the 2016 MSL season compared to Felda’s 17. JDT are just ahead in the goals for department, with 43 to Felda’s 40.
- JDT are undefeated in the league thus far while Felda have not suffered a home league defeat at their new Tun Razak Stadium. The Fighters have only dropped points in Jengka on two occasions.
- Felda United were the last team to hand JDT an MSL defeat courtesy of their 2-1 win at Selayang Stadium on August 22, 2015.
- JDT lead the head-to-head tally with five wins compared to Felda’s three in the past 10 matches, but Gomez’s men have only won once in their past four attempts.
JDT 2 Felda 1: The Southern Tigers will have to work hard for their win but the injuries to Christie and Turaev could prove Felda’s undoing.
Main photo: Felda United