JDT vs Kedah: Cup specialists Kedah aiming to rock Johor further
The start of the 2017 Malaysia Super League (MSL) season.
Doubling up as the first match of the MSL season for both teams, the Sultan Ahmad Shah Cup offers more than just the first silverware of the year.
Three points on the opening day, against a team expected to be at the top end of the table come the end of the season nevertheless, would mark a perfect start for either team on Friday.
The Southern Tigers – three-time consecutive league champions and winners of the previous two curtain raisers – are overwhelming favourites for a landmark fourth MSL title but Kedah have grown in strength since Tan Cheng Hoe took charge in 2014 and could be JDT’s closest challengers this season.
Apart from welcoming two new imports, Danish striker Ken Ilso and Australian defender Zac Anderson, the Red Eagles have maintained largely a similar squad to the class of 2016.
JDT, meanwhile, welcomed three new imports in Argentineans Brian Ferreira, Gonzalo Cabrera and Jeronimo Barrales. The club has also added 2016’s most valuable player Ahmad Hazwan Bakri and most promising player Safawi Rasid to their ranks, and cleared out several fringe players such as Safee Sali, Nazrin Nawi and Jasazrin Jamaluddin.
Both teams were praised for their style of football last year and if they bring that into the new season, the neutrals could not have asked for a better tie to kick-start the domestic competitions.
However, JDT will have to do it on unsteady grounds, especially after the abrupt departure of coach Mario Gomez, just two days before the match. There will still be a sense of stability, with JDT II head coach Benjamin Mora promoted to take charge of the senior squad.
Kedah’s Syazwan Zainon remains doubtful after only recently returning to training following an injury he sustained during international duty in November.
All imports are expected to start for both teams, but how JDT line-up could be a talking point.
Will Hazwan – the country’s best forward – find himself on the flanks like he did at former team Selangor or will he finally fulfil his potential as an out-an-out striker?
Barrales and Ferreira will find the attention fixed on them and their every move scrutinised, especially after replacing Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Juan Martin Lucero, who were both instrumental to JDT’s success in 2016.
Key battle: Safiq Rahim vs Liridon Krasniqi
Krasniqi has gone on to establish himself as among the finest imports since his move to Kedah in 2015.
The Kosovan playmaker is at the centre of Kedah’s possession-style football and very much integral to the Northerner’s attacking threat. Opponents find it difficult to get the ball off him and his teammates revel in his presence. Much of young central-midfielder Amirul Hisyam Awang Kechik’s rise in 2016 could be credited to Krasniqi’s influence.
Krasniqi will find himself up against Safiq on Friday. The former Malaysia captain struggled to cope against Krasniqi in 2016 but with a relatively stronger midfield partner this time around in Cabrera, Safiq could pose a great challenge.
Safiq, 2016’s best midfielder, is arguably the finest midfielder of his generation in Malaysia and is among the first names in JDT’s starting 11.
Battle of the coaches: Benjamin Mora vs Tan Cheng Hoe
Gomez became the first JDT coach to last an entire season since Tunku Ismail took control of the club in 2012 but shockingly, he was let go just before the season kicked off.
The former South China boss had won two MSL titles, a Sultan Ahmad Shah Cup, a FA Cup and an AFC Cup with JDT and he was expected to add more silverware in 2017.
His replacement will be JDT II head coach Benjamin Mora, whose opposite counterpart on Friday could give him hell on his debut.
Tan Cheng Hoe is arguably Malaysia’s next best thing in coaching after taking Kedah from second-tier pretenders to the upper echelons of Malaysian football in just over two years.
Tan won the 2015 MPL to win promotion and finished an impressive third in their top flight return.
Khairul Helmi Johari and company also won the Malaysia Cup last year, a trophy they missed out on after a fairy-tale run to the final in 2015.
Facts and Figures
JDT have not lost in the MSL since August 2015 and are on a 51-match unbeaten home run in the league dating back to April 2012.
The Southern Tigers dropped points in their 2016 opener against Selangor at Larkin but that was the only time they dropped points at home since June 2014.
Kedah, one of the only two domestic clubs in all competitions to have defeated JDT last year, have not won at Larkin since a 1-0 win in the 2011 MSL season. JDT won on all four occasions the clubs met in Johor Bahru since.
Both teams ended their 2016 campaign on a six-match winning run.
Kedah are no easy opponents but JDT are expected to be a cut above the rest again this year. The Southern Tigers’ proud home record is expected to continue but it could still be a narrow affair.