Rumours, sackings and Super League survival: What to expect in the MSL

The Malaysia Super League (MSL) finally resumes on July 1 after a five-week mid-season break. With many eager for the action to re-start, here are 10 things you should expect between now and the end of the campaign…

THE TITLE RACE

With a six-point lead at the top, defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) are hot favourites to land a fourth straight league title.

Yet a couple of unfavourable results could throw the race wide open if Pahang and Kedah, both level on 24 points in second and third respectively, can keep winning. Consistency, however, has been the chasing pack’s biggest pitfall.

Mora is back with JDT II

The Southern Tigers have strengthened their squad with Lebanese forward Mohamed Ghaddar and former Levante midfielder Natxo Insa.

Benjamin Mora is no longer in the dugout after being demoted back to JDT II to make way for Portuguese Ulisses Morais, who may need time to acclimatise as he has never coached outside his homeland.

THE BATTLE TO SURVIVE

Five points from safety, Penang’s MSL challenge looks done and dusted. The Panthers, however, will be banking on history repeating itself.

Failure to qualify for the 2016 Malaysia Cup – which is again the case this year – allowed the team to concentrate on staying up, which it just managed to achieve.

Melaka haven't had much luck in 2017

Three other teams – Melaka United, Sarawak and PKNS – are all on 11 points and stuck in the relegation scrap.

Melaka have made the most changes in the mid-season transfer window, welcoming eight new players after showing nine the exit, but that could be their undoing. The changes were made even before Eduardo Almeida replaced Eric Williams as coach,

THE ARRIVAL OF SOME NEW STARS

The reliance on import players was underlined by the number of changes that took place during the transfer window.

Penang’s decision to sign defensive players at the start of the season in Andy Russell and Diogo Ferreira did not pay off

Kedah were the only team that did not make changes as MSL clubs averaged two per team and made a hefty 23 foreign replacements in total.

Penang’s attempts at revival may well depend on how their new imports, largely attack-minded players in Sanna Nyassi and Mark Hartmann, perform.

Penang’s decision to sign defensive players at the start of the season in Andy Russell and Diogo Ferreira did not pay off as the Islanders struggled up front.

At the top, Pahang are banking on Yamil Romero linking up well with hitman Matheus Alves, while mid-table sides Kelantan, Selangor, Felda United and Perak are looking for consistency.

SOME INEVITABLE SACKINGS

Changes in the coaching departments are nothing new in Malaysia and a few poor results quickly starts talk of a coach being sacked or the dreaded term ‘rested’.

Azmi Mohamed was the first to be replaced weeks into the 2017 season back in February but it was largely because he felt the Felda United task was too much for him.

No less than five other changes have taken place since then and, apart from Tan Cheng Hoe leaving Kedah to become Malaysia assistant coach, the rest have been performance-related.

Tan has joined the national set-up

PKNS and Sarawak have shown few signs they are looking to replace E. Elavarasan and David Usop respectively, but only sitting goal difference out of the relegation zone, another string of poor results could force the teams to hit the panic button.

Kelantan’s Zahasmi Ismail may also be looking over his shoulder as the Red Warriors have built a reputation of firing coaches when results don’t go their way. Financial concerns are unlikely to be a deterrent either, especially as Kelantan could ask technical director Alfredo Carlos Gonzales to take over without incurring any additional costs.

SADLY, REFEREES SURE TO REMAIN IN SPOTLIGHT

They never have it easy and there are often disgruntled parties either way the referees blow, but there are decisions that have often proven glaringly wrong and that will only continue.

Even the best referees around the globe have made poor decisions, but in Malaysia it seems to be far too commonplace.

There was a major talking point in the very first match of the season after the referee allegedly saw replays on the big screen before overturning his decision in awarding Kedah a penalty against JDT.

JDT and Kedah fought out a controversial season-opener

The decision was the right one, but the process was not.

Malaysia are looking into introducing a video assistant referee (VAR) in 2018 to reduce disputes and make better judgements, but that may not solve the problem entirely as referees still have a major say.

There will always be debates whether a player should have been sent off or not for their conduct, but sadly it’s typically more of an issue in Malaysian than elsewhere.

[NEXT PAGE: The Cups, the schedule and the new national coach]