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PKNS Preview: Plucky Red Ants keen to emerge from the shadows

Newly promoted side PKNS have been very active in the current transfer window ahead of their return to the Malaysia Super League (MSL) and are confident of becoming instant contenders back in the top flight competition.

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Many regard PKNS as an unofficial feeder team to Selangor, but with the 33-time Malaysia Cup champions having internal issues, the Red Ants can now look forward to creating their own history.

PKNS are widely expected to challenge for the Malaysia Super League (MSL) title, along with defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), Kedah, Pahang, Felda United and Perak.

I think we have a solid team to challenge the contenders in the MSL

- Matias Hadwa

The club played in the MSL for the first time in 2012 after winning the Malaysia Premier League (MPL) the previous season, but returned to the second-tier following a bottom-placed finish in 2014.

PKNS then earned promotion once more after finishing second to Malacca United in last season’s MPL, while they also beat teams such as Terengganu and Felda United en route to the FA Cup final, which they lost to JDT.

Last season’s success was attributed to their foreign signings in Palestinian international Matias Hadwa, along with Argentines Gonzalo Soto, Juan Cobelli and Gabriel Guerra.

The quartet scored 68 goals between them while local players netted the other nine (not including owns goals scored by opponents) in 2016.

Hadwa is back for another season and is optimistic about the campaign ahead.

“I think we have a solid team to challenge the contenders in the MSL,” said the Chilean-born attacker.

Safee will add leadership and goalscoring to the ranks

“The club have signed many top names in Malaysian football and the coach (E. Elavarasan) is currently working on integrating the players and also building the right chemistry ahead of the season.

“The old and the newcomers need to work on combinations and tactics as we are practically a new team this year.

“I think it will not be a problem once the league starts.”

We are lucky as some of our new signings had played for MSL teams previously and so they will know what to expect

Guerra’s departure to Johor Darul Ta’zim II (JDT II) means PKNS will be without their top scorer for the new season. The former Boca Juniors recruit netted 23 times last season.

Cobelli, who scored 22 goals last season, is also out of the picture following Liberian international Patrick Wleh’s return after a season-long loan at Selangor.

However, PKNS are unperturbed with Guerra’s decision not to extend his loan stay with the club as they have hired Argentine striker Lucas Espindola as his replacement.

PKNS have been active recruiting players following an increase of their budget from RM8 million to RM11 million, apart from the additional RM6 million received from the Selangor State Government.

Among the new local signings are national striker Safee Sali, Bobby Gonzales, Affize Faizal Mamat, K. Gurusamy, Sabre Mat Abu and Amirizdwan Taj Tajuddin.

With 13 new signings, the club has been focusing on getting the players to gel through pre-season friendly matches.

Hadwa said PKNS, however, must remain level-headed and take things step-by-step in the MSL.

Espindola will be expected to lead the way up front

“The MSL is at a different level compared to the MPL,” he said. “The intensity in the second-tier competition was different last season as only six of the 12 teams were good enough to challenge for the top two promotion spots.

“We are lucky as some of our new signings had played for MSL teams previously and so I think they will know what to expect when the season starts. The management have set a top six target and I think it is achievable.

“We, however, should not limit ourselves in terms of target. We should aim higher and win some trophies.”

Setting an ambitious target will only add pressure. We want to focus on surviving the season before thinking big in 2018

- E. Elavarasan

The 25-year-old also wants to score more than his tally of 19 goals last season.

“I want to score more than 19 goals next season. Goals are not easy to get but I am working hard in training to get things right,” Hadwa added.

Coach E. Elavarasan was cautious when touching on targets.

“It is our first season back to top flight football and a new team cannot be setting unachievable targets. We may have secured the services of several top players but some are returning from long-term injuries.

“Setting an ambitious target will only add pressure. We want to focus on surviving the season before thinking big in 2018,” said Elavarasan.

PKNS open their MSL campaign against Felda United in Jengka on January 21.

Photos: PKNS FC