Newly promoted Penang hungry for MSL success with new imports
PENANG -- This popular tourist destination may be famous around the world for the quality of its street eats, but the food available outside the old city stadium is still mostly standard football fare: burgers and kebabs. Those wanting Laksa, Char Kway Teow or a Nyonya curry may be disappointed, but the fans were just here for the football. A recent preseason friendly with Kuala Lumpur FA was an appetiser for the main course -- a first season back in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) -- so with the kickoff fast approaching, mouths are starting to water.
For now, the end of the 2015 season is still being digested. With a few weeks left, the Panthers looked to be slipping out of the promotion race, but coach Jacksen Tiago's men found an extra gear just when it was needed. Even five wins from the last five games would not have been enough until rivals PBDKT T-Team lost on the final day of the Malaysia Premier League. It meant Penang were heading back to the top tier for the first time since 2010.
This is where they belong, or at least that is what the fans old enough to remember the glory days, believe. There are three titles in different decades. Four Malaysia Cups, three of which came in the 1950s, the fourth back in 1974 and the one FA Cup which landed on the island in 2002. That is a long span of silverware but there has been nothing since apart from the 2003 Charity Cup.
There are hopes that the drought could soon be at an end. Penang president Datuk Seri Nazir Ariff sat just above the tunnel against Kuala Lumpur, watching on a steamy night in the stadium surrounded by residential apartments and houses yet still close to the centre of Georgetown. He is as hungry as any fan for success and in recent weeks has been talking the talk in terms of targets for the new season.
"We need to match strong teams like Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) and Selangor," Nazir said.
"We also cannot underestimate teams like Felda United and neighbours Kedah."
Telling a newly promoted club to finish above one or more of these giants of Malaysian football in the 2016 MSL is a tall order. Perhaps the idea of winning a cup, or at least getting to the final, is less outlandish but even so, far from easy.
At least the CEO has walked the walk to a reasonable extent. The club have invested around $4 million on new signings. While it may not be enough to take a trophy or make the top three, it should make a difference. The problem is that there are always questions as to how the new signings will settle.
Tiago told ESPN FC that there is sometimes too much pressure placed on the shoulders of foreign players, but he is looking to finish as high up the table as possible. "We have a strong group, maybe not an experienced group in the super league so we can surprise people," Tiago said.
"If I am honest however, if you see how football works, it will not be easy."
Given what happened against Kuala Lumpur, a team who finished next to bottom of the Malaysian second tier, it certainly won't be. The strugglers from the capital won 1-0. Penang started well and had a number of chances but just couldn't take them.
In the second half, the opportunities lessened as levels of frustration increased. Then the visitors got the only goal of the game. It was just a preseason friendly but fans don't always see it that way.
"We played a few preparation matches. The first against a team from the third division and we lost, everybody talked like we are nothing," Tiago said. "Then we won the second friendly match against a team we could not beat last season. Everyone was suddenly, 'Wow, what a great team'. It's not like that. You have to have a good balance."
The same is true of the squad. If the new signings provide balance, then 2016 could be a good one but you never quite know how foreign imports will perform.
South Korean star Lee Gil-hoon, who was so good in 2014 but not as consistent last season, has left. In has come Brazilian striker Tadeu who is set to be tasked with scoring the goals to keep the Panthers in touch with the big boys. So far, the former Figueirense and Bursapor marksman has looked a little out of sorts and fans are looking for an improvement in his mobility and aggression before the big kickoff.
Argentine playmaker Matias Cordoba has settled faster: encouraging, passing and probing behind the No. 9. Big Brazilian centre-back Lobo is still there, and the new foreign import contingent is rounded out by defender Brett Griffiths. There are hopes the Australian will be the cool-headed yin to the more excitable Lobo.
There are new Malaysian additions, too. No fewer than six former Harimau Muda players have signed on: S. Kumaahran, Muhamad Faizat Mohamad Ghazali, Muhammad Jafri Chew, Muhammad Hazrull Hafiz Zulkifli, Mohamed Syamer Kutty Abba and Wan Rohaimi Wan Rahasdi. Of the half-dozen young prospects, there is most excitement about S.Kumaahran. Willing to run at defenders, a real love of having the ball at his feet and getting into the area. Fans are excited about having a potential local hero on their hands.
Penang have a big appetite going into the season. Will there be a clean plate and a satisfied smile at the end? Or will the Panthers end up biting off more than they can chew? The hungry fans in Georgetown are eager to find out.
John Duerden is ESPN's Asia football correspondent who also works for BBC Radio, The Guardian and World Soccer. Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden