MPL Review: Negeri still top, but rivals close the gap

Negeri Sembilan still lead the Malaysia Premier League (MPL) after 15 matches, but the chasing pack have closed up the gap... 

Negeri Sembilan still lead the Malaysia Premier League (MPL) with an unbeaten run of eight wins and five draws.

Asri Ninggal’s side have a two-point lead over second-place Terengganu (27 points) while Kuala Lumpur are third with 26 points, one more than fourth-place Perak SEDC.

However, Negeri are facing a bad patch as their last four matches ended in 1-1 draws and Asri is concerned with the sudden poor form.

A repeat of last season is on the cards for Negeri if they do not turn their fortunes around.

In 2016, Negeri were on course for a promotion spot to the Malaysia Super League (MSL) as they were second at the halfway mark but lost ground following poor results.

Negeri had a five-point lead early last month but it has since cut to two.

Nemanja Vidic (no. 26) and co is finding it tough at the moment

But at the moment, Negeri could still emulate Sarawak’s unbeaten campaign in the 2013 season and play top-tier football next season.

On May 5, they were held by Armed Forces and Johor Darul Ta’zim II (JDT II) with 1-1 score lines.

Asri admitted to FourFourTwo recently that he is feeling the heat and hopes Negeri will be able to maintain their lead after the Ramadan month break.

“Things are not good. Other teams are catching up on us. If we keep drawing matches, our rivals will soon take over the lead,” said Asri.

“It is not easy. Our explosive start to the season grabbed attention and teams have studied our style.

“Other teams now put a lot of pressure on our attackers. Furthermore, some players are lacking in terms of concentration.

“We need to find a solution quickly. The break will give me the time to analyse our weaknesses.

“One thing for sure is we need to improve on our finishing. At the moment, our unbeaten record is intact but we need to start winning.”

Asri Ninggal’s side have a two-point lead over second-place Terengganu (27 points) while Kuala Lumpur are third with 26 points, one more than fourth-place Perak SEDC.

Negeri have boost up their defence by signing wing-backs Nik Shahrul Azim Abdul Halim and Sabre Mat Abu from MSL’s Kelantan and PKNS, respectively.

Asri does not plan to replace his foreign players but things may change as the mid-season transfer window only closes on June 11.

Negeri will restart their MPL campaign on June 30 by hosting Perlis in Paroi.

Perlis with six points and Armed Forces on five occupy the bottom two spots in the MPL.

Perlis and Armed Forces were docked six points each recently for failure to meet the league’s regulations over contributions to income tax, Socso and the Employees Provident Fund, along with owing players’ and coaches’ their salaries.

However, Perlis’ appealed and had three points reinstated while Armed Forces had theirs shot down by Football Malaysia Limited Liability Partnership (FMLLP).

Malaysia Cup Qualification

Negeri, Terengganu, Perak SEDC, Kuala Lumpur and University Technology Malaysia (UiTM) are the teams that have qualified for the Malaysia Cup, which commerce next month.

Negeri and Perak SEDC have been drawn in Group A with MSL’s Pahang and T-Team while KL are in Group B with Perak, Felda United and PKNS.

UiTM will face newly crowned FA Cup champions Kedah, Kelantan and Melaka in Group C while Terengganu are in Group D with Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), Sarawak and 33-time winners Selangor.

Negeri have set no target for the competition as their priority is the MPL.

Coach Asri said the Malaysia Cup will be a testing ground for his fringe players.

“I do not want to take risks as the schedule after the break will be hectic. Our focus is only on gaining promotion.

“And so, I will give opportunities to my bench players in the competition. I cannot depend solely on my regulars to alternate between MPL and Malaysia Cup matches as they may get tired and sustain injuries,” said Asri.

However, Asri’s rotation policy that helped Negeri make the FA Cup semi-finals could also work for them in the Malaysia Cup.

UiTM have been punching above their weight this season

First-timers Perak SEDC have set an ambitious quarter-final target and coach Abu Bakar Fadzim is confident of achieving it once they sign a fourth foreign player.

“We have been consistent throughout the season. Self-belief is important in football and I hope the boys will maintain their form in the Malaysia Cup.

“We are also looking for a fourth foreign signing to boost our squad. Perak have also loaned us defender Raffi Nagoorgani and winger Hafiz Ramdan. I believe the new inclusions will give me options.

“My players are young and they will not be too affected by tiredness. We want to secure promotion from the MPL and also do well in the Malaysia Cup,” said Abu Bakar.

UiTM, comprising mostly university students, received a boost when Nigerian striker Akanni Wasiu and South Korean winger Do Dong Hyun, who have scored 23 goals between them, pledged to stay with the club until the end of the season recently.

Coach Wan Mustaffa Wan Ismail was initially worried as Wasiu and Dong Hyun had received offers from Selangor and other MSL clubs.

“They could have left us as the offers were attractive. But I think they like the club and want to stay on,” said Wan Mustaffa.

The coach said qualifying for the Malaysia Cup is already a huge achievement but the club want to do slightly better by making the last eight.

“My players have never played in the Malaysia Cup and so, it will be good exposure for them to play against top MSL teams,” Wan Mustaffa added.

LEADING SCORERS

Brazilian striker Guilherme De Paula has taken over the lead for the MPL Golden Boot award after scoring all six goals for Kuala Lumpur in the 6-0 hammering of Armed Forces on May 23.

De Paula has now taken his tally to 16 goals in 13 matches, three more than UiTM’s Wasiu, followed by MISC-MIFA’s Tagne Foguieng (12 goals).

De Paula strikes fear into opposing keepers

PDRM’s Dao Bakary has netted 11 goals, one more than UiTM’s Do Dong Hyun while JDT II’s Nicolas Fernandez and Negeri’s Bruno Castanheira have each scored nine times.

Armed Forces’ Venice Elphi and Kuantan’s Abdul Malik Mat Ariff are the leading local scorers with eight goals each, followed by Perak SEDC captain Shahrel Fikri Fauzi (six goals) and Sabah’s Maxsius Musa (four goals).

MPL News

Former recipient of the national best coach award, K. Devan has been engaged by MISC-MIFA as their technical director.

The 56-year-old was successful with Negeri and Selangor by landing both teams the MSL crowns in the past.

His last appointment as coach with Kelantan turned out disastrous as he resigned midway of the 2016 season.

K. Devan (in blue) is back

MISC-MIFA, who were investigated recently for match-fixing, have collected only six points and are currently just above the relegation zone on goal difference over 11th-place Perlis.

Devan will work hand-in-hand with MISC-MIFA coach Jacob Joseph to help the club avoid relegation.

Former Penang top soccer Lee Gil Hoon and Heo Jaen Yeong, both South Koreans, have replaced Frenchmen Jonathan Behe and Sofiane Choubani at Sabah.

The 34-year-old Gil Hoon made immediate impact for his new club by recording one goal and one assist in the 3-3 draw with Kuantan FA on May 24.

Photos: Asiana.my