FFT’s MSL mid-season review: Our likely title winners and who avoids the drop?

Defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) are on course for a fourth straight Malaysia Super League title, but a chasing pack led by Pahang and Kedah is hoping to catch up. At the bottom of the ladder, PKNS, Sarawak, Malacca and last-placed Penang are all in trouble...

THE TITLE RACE – JDT'S TO LOSE DESPITE 'TRANSITION' YEAR

The Southern Tigers are six points ahead of both Pahang and Kedah after 13 rounds of matches and, with only nine games remaining when the season resumes on July 1, Benjamin Mora’s men are hot favourites for another record-breaking moment.

With a squad like theirs, comprising many of the best local players around, JDT were always expected to be frontrunners, but the manner in which their 2017 campaign kicked-off brought about some doubts.

Pahang and Kedah have impressive line-ups of their own and can beat anyone on their day – including JDT

Key imports in 2016 Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Juan Martin Lucero and Hariss Harun – albeit with the latter still contracted to JDT – were told they were not needed.

Popular coach Mario Gomez, who delivered the shock 2015 AFC Cup triumph, was also replaced by Mora days before the season started.

The club was adamant it wanted and needed a new playing style despite the success enjoyed in previous years.

JDT lost both their Sultan Ahmad Shah Cup and FA Cup titles to Kedah and finally lost an MSL tie – after going the entire 2016 season unbeaten – following a 2-1 loss to Perak. Things looked far from OK as some of the new imports failed to live up to expectations.

Kedah and Pahang are leading the chasing pack

The introduction of Gabriel Guerra to the squad in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to bolster their challenge on all fronts somewhat steadied the ship and JDT, who didn’t top the standings until the ninth round of matches, now look comfortable.

The Johor Bahru-based club’s haul of 29 league goals are only bettered by Pahang’s 31, but the defence marshalled by Marcos Antonio is keeping them on top.

With Safiq Rahim pulling the strings from midfield ... the league title is expected to stay in Larkin

JDT have only conceded 11 goals thus far while Pahang and Kedah have let in 17 and 18 respectively.

Pahang and Kedah have impressive line-ups of their own and can beat anyone on their day – including JDT – but their lack of consistency is proving costly.

Both took turns leading the field for nine rounds before slipping up and opening the door to the three-time defending champions.

With Safiq Rahim pulling the strings from midfield and scoring eight goals already, coupled with the fact JDT are likely to place more importance on the league title instead of the Malaysia Cup that Pahang and Kedah have set their sights on, the league title is expected to stay in Larkin for a record-extending fourth straight year.

[NEXT PAGE: The battle to avoid the dreaded drop]