JDT braced for the challenge of Kedah and Pahang as MSL resumes
The Malaysia Super League (MSL) resumes on Saturday following a five-week break, with Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) seemingly on course for a fourth consecutive title.
But with second-placed Pahang and Kedah proving worthy adversaries, the hope is that the title race will heat up over the remaining four months of the season.
Here are five wishes for the remainder of the MSL campaign:
1. Pahang and Kedah to push JDT to the limit
Despite holding a six-point advantage over both Pahang and Kedah, JDT still have plenty of work to do.
Their closest challengers have shown their consistency, with only four losses between them, and contested a scintillating FA Cup final in May.
While Kedah triumphed in that end-to-end encounter, Pahang showed the spirit of champions to push them, with a man down, for much of the 90 minutes.
The quality and perseverance of both teams, guided by local coaches, will be put to the test as they try to stop JDT from running away with league glory once again.
One thing's for sure: neither side will be intimidated by the superstars of the Johor Southern Tigers.
2. Morais to prepare JDT for ACL qualification
Little is known of the Southern Tigers' latest coach, whose recent career has been limited to the lower leagues of Portugal.
But despite his almost non-existent English skills, there is something about Ulisses Morais that attracted JDT's Crown Prince owner after Benjamin Mora was sent back to JDT II.
Ulisses, who was also linked with the Malaysia national head coach position, will have more than just another league title to deliver. The former Beira-Mar boss will be under pressure to lift the Malaysia Cup in his first season, something that hasn't happened since the TMJ revolution began in 2012.
Beyond that, Ulisses will be relied on to take JDT to the group stages of the AFC Champions League (ACL), a dream they've held since winning the AFC Cup in 2015. That is, if he is still around at the end of the season, which isn't guaranteed.
3. Kelantan to pay unsettled wages
The Red Warriors have been mired by financial woes since start of the year, making international headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Kelantan's mismanagement of funds saw the players' world union FIFPro urge the Football Association of Malaysia to act. The 2012 MSL champions have been given until Oct. 31 to settle their past and present players' salaries, or face instant relegation.
With the MSL pushing for every participating team to be equipped with club licensing, salary non-payment is the last thing Malaysian football needs. Ethical business practices and professionalism are paramount to increase commercial value. That is what every club should strive to achieve by next year when all teams are expected to have licences.
Kelantan's management can complain and make all the excuses they want, but at the end of the day, they simply need to settle their debts.
4. Penang to produce another great escape
After jettisoning autocratic Englishman Ashley Westwood, Penang turned to Zainal Abidin Hassan to revive their desperate slump at the bottom of the table.
The former Selangor coach has not been able to immediately change the fortunes of the island state, but his understanding of the local players has brought some improvements.
Zainal has released almost all of the previous foreign signings, and brought in new faces to beef the team. Philippines' striker Mark Hartmann could be Penang's saviour if he can continue to find the net, while Gambian winger Sanna Nyassi has also begun to make an impact.
Despite being stranded five points off the safety zone with only one win to their name, Penang can still beat the drop once the players find the right motivation.
If Zainal can keep them afloat, even if it comes down to the last day of the season again, he will could have a long-term future with the Panthers.
A result away to JDT on July 1 can set the tone for another Houdini-act, just like last year.
5. Malaysian teams to do their homework
Of the 12 sides in the MSL, only Kedah did not change their foreign personnel for the second half of the season. Zachary Anderson, Liridon Krasniqi, Sandro Da Silva and Ken Ilso can consider themselves part of a rare group of imports to have survived the vicious Malaysian football culture of chopping and changing.
Some of the overseas players are signed on a whim, without sufficient information about their background and recent achievements. More often than not, this backfires on the club.
Paying compensation to departing players, after less than six months, is a waste of money.
As in any profession, recruitment is key, so Malaysian teams need to do their due diligence on possible imports before opening up their cheque books.
Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.