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 By Dez Corkhill

JDT look for MSL three-peat as Selangor and Kelantan bolster squads

The 2016 Malaysia Super League season kicks off on Saturday night with a mouth-watering Charity Shield clash between Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) and Selangor at Larkin Stadium.

The league looks to be genuinely competitive this year. JDT will start as favourites for a three-peat, but they will find it difficult as state sides Selangor, Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah have all increased their budgets and recruited well.

Here are five thoughts on the season ahead:

1. JDT to find life difficult without Luciano

Despite the depth of the champions' squad, the single loss of the now-retired Luciano Figueroa could potentially shape their entire campaign. Remember how inconsistent they were without the influential Argentina at the start of the 2015 season. Figueroa was so much more than just a goal scorer; he was a true leader. Despite boasting virtually two teams of internationals within their squad, Johor are a weaker, all-round proposition than 2015 without their South American talisman.

If Juan Lucero can't fill Figueroa's sizable boots, then there are genuine worries. While many lauded the way JDT took Muang Thong United to penalties away from home in the AFC Champions League qualifier last week, there was little doubt that the Thais were by far the better team.

Defensively, JDT look organised and strong. But the lack of an attacking threat from JDT in Bangkok was worrying. Amri Yahyah was quiet, Safiq Rahim overshadowed and Safee Sali more of a pest than a genuine threat when he came off the bench. The relegation of new signing Paulo Rangel to JDT II reduced their goal scoring potential even more. And while Pererya Diaz is a fine player, he doesn't seem to be the leader that Figueroa was.

Selangor coach Zainal Abidin
Zainal Abidin (far left), and his coaching staff are hoping for immediate success at new club Selangor. (Photo credit:

2. Selangor's investment gamble

If Johor are slightly weaker, then the others appear stronger. The acquisition of Patrick Wleh by Selangor will make them so much more potent going forward. The Liberian striker virtually comes with a 15 goal guarantee. Other attacking signatures, such as Hafiz Kamal from Pahang, will add a touch more creativity, while Razman Roslan's signature -- also from the Elephants -- will give much greater defensive depth.

The main issue for new coach Zainal Abidin Hassan is how the new recruits -- particularly those from his old Kuantan stomping ground -- gel with the remnants of Mehmet Durakovic's Malaysia Cup-winning team. Normally, players run through brick walls for Zainal, but this will be a man-management test for the Malaysian legend. We'll get our first indications on Saturday.

3. Kelantan to surprise and Terengganu to thrill

The Red Warriors have made headlines more for their sponsorship dealings than anything else in preseason. Indeed, there have been complaints about their results in trial matches. But they could turn out to be the MSL surprise package.

New coach K. Devan has as much to prove as his players. For Wan Zack Haikal and Wan Zahrulnizam, this is the chance to show they are so much more than just occasionally brilliant. For Muslim Ahmad, it is a last opportunity to build on his obvious qualities -- if he can focus his energies correctly -- and veteran Aussie Jon McKain is the perfect foil alongside him. And ex-Sydney FC midfielder Brendan Gan, turning 28 in June, will be motivated to show that he has fully recovered from his injury problems.

Former PDRM FA striker Dramane Traore will ensure that there are goals, assuming that chances are created. It could be fun in Kota Bahru this season and it will definitely be colourful.

MSL club Kelantan
Kelantan unveiled their 2016 home and away kits earlier this month. (Photo credit:

Another Northeast outfit, Terengganu, will feature amongst the 'must-watch' teams. Maybe Amiridzuan Taj will add a bit more stability to their notoriously brittle back four. Affize Faizal and Hairuddin Omar's signatures may also add more defensive awareness to a team notorious for its ability to underachieve.

It's an off-field change that may make the biggest difference for Terengganu. Ahmad Yusof is head coach, but he has called upon the attack-minded Australian Mike Mulvey, for some expert direction. Mulvey guided Brisbane Roar to A-League success in 2012-13 and was most recently in charge of Sabah in the Malaysian second tier.

They will always be fun going forward. Issey Nakajima-Farran, Ismail Faruqi and Ashari Shamsuddin are dynamic. And the addition of Joseph Kallang Tie adds even more dash to an offensive threat that brims with quality.

If Mulvey and former centre-back Ahmad Yusof can plug Terengganu's gaping defensive gaps, the Turtles are good enough to challenge all the way.

4. Kedah's Harimau Muda graduates

The elevation of six former Harimau Muda players to Kedah was one of the most fascinating developments of the transfer window. Kedah blew away all before them in last season's Premier league and made it all the way to the Malaysia Cup final. But they were let down at the back. They acknowledged themselves that defensive frailties were an issue.

The likes of goalkeeper Farhan Abu Bakar, centre-backs Syawel Nordin and Ariff Farhan, plus fullback Asri Mardzuki, were part of a Harimau Muda defence that improved as the Singapore S-League season unfolded. With the U23 project now disbanded, this is a chance to see if the lessons this quartet learned in Singapore can help make Kedah genuine contenders.

Offensively, Krasniqi and Sandro are creative, Fakri Saarani will add endeavor, Baddrol Bakhtiar's presence will ensure a Kedahan heartbeat, and Kahe will be judged on his goals' return.

Political machinations aside, this Red Dragon team could soar.

Kedah were one of the most attacking teams in the Premier League last season. (Photo credit:

5. Moving forward with facilities

Added elements to look out for for the season include the introduction of a football-friendly facility for Felda United. The new facility -- the Tun Razak Stadium - is complete with artificial pitch and will give Felda a place to call home.

It's a big step in the right direction towards professionalism. Wandering clubs don't give off a good image. Work has already started on a new stadium in Johor, and with Kelantan's new pink hue in Kota Bahru, there is a focus on upgrading facilities.

Football Malaysia LLP have made a decent start in persuading the teams change the format of the year, with the start of the Malaysia Cup now just 11 games into the season instead of coming at the end of the MSL campaign.

Small steps, but important steps in what shapes as a crucial year for Malaysian football

With 25 years media experience, Asian commentator Dez Corkhill is a former VP of Astro Arena in Malaysia, and head of Sports Centred Media Services.


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