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 By Dez Corkhill

Well rested JDT welcome Kedah to Larkin, target Malaysia FA Cup final

After their comeback victory in Myanmar in the AFC Cup midweek, Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta'zim will turn their attention to domestic duties this weekend.

Having already won February's Charity Shield, Mario Gomez's side are targeting a quartet of trophies.

Here are three thoughts on the FA Cup semifinals, second legs:

1. An occasion to savour

Football under the floodlights; a finely balanced tie; a full house with 25,000 passionate and vocal Johorians plus 2,000 equally noisy Kedahans. What could be better? Saturday night at Larkin Stadium promises to be one of those occasions that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Johor Darul Ta'zim
Johor Darul Ta'zim rested key players for their midweek AFC Cup exploits and will be fresh for Saturday's game against Kedah.

The atmosphere alone should make this an occasion to remember. But away from that, the players need to respond to the occasion and give the FA Cup a semifinal to remember.

The build-up just favours JDT. Not only are they unbeaten at home all season, they have won seven consecutive games at their Larkin fortress. Teams rarely escape from Johor without a chastening defeat. Their home record over the past few seasons is nothing short of remarkable: Played 50, Won 39, Lost 1, Drawn 10, with 121 goals scored and only 40 conceded.

Also in the Southern Tigers' favour is the fact that they were able to rest players for their AFC Cup game against Ayeyawady United in Myanmar. Safiq Rahim, Jorge Pererya Diaz, Juan Martin Lucero, Farizal Marlias, Aidil Zafuan and Marcus Antonio not only didn't start against the Myanmarese -- they didn't even travel. So after a month of frantic traversing the continent, Johor's star names have had some rest and been able to recharge their batteries for Saturday's big game.

To Kedah's advantage is the one goal lead they take into the second leg, and the knowledge that, while this may be the third match the teams have played against each other inside three weeks, JDT have yet to beat them.

The teams will know each other's strengths and weaknesses. Kedah will also have confidence in the form of goalkeeper, Farhan. He was assured, brave and outstanding in last weekend's Malaysia Super League draw between the teams.

On the deficit side, injury rules out Farhan Roslan, and suspension denies them the creative talents of Liridon Krasniqi.

Larkin Stadium will be no place for faint hearts. Can't help but think back to the Malaysia Cup semifinal two years ago when Kedah took a lead to Pahang for the second leg, and also to last season's Malaysia Cup final against Selangor. Kedah froze on the big occasion both times.

This is a heavyweight occasion that will showcase the very best of the Malaysian domestic game.

Perak FA
Perak drew 2-2 with PKNS in the first leg.

2. Expect a goal-fest

Good times have been thin on the ground for Perak over the last decade. The last final of any description for the Bos Gaurus was back in 2007. That's nine lean, and largely cheerless, years. Since then, MSL survival, and the occasional junior success, has been the sum total of the state's playing achievements.

But Perak fans need little encouragement to get behind their team. Former coaches Steve Darby and Dato M. Karathu speak fondly of how important the fans can be on the big occasion. They have a key role to play against free-scoring PKNS Selangor in Saturday's FA Cup semifinal, second leg.

Perak have had more than their share of problems this year. Up until the fifth game of the season, they had scored just one league goal. Despite a near impregnable defence in those opening games, it meant that they were struggling at the foot of the table. But recent form is better. High flying Felda United, Terengganu and Pahang have been hit for three goals in recent weeks and now they are scoring plenty, but conceding an alarming number as well.

This match could well be a goal-fest. The first leg in Melaka finished all square at 2-2, and Perak will know that PKNS have scored no fewer than two goals in each of their last 12 matches -- 10 of them had three or more. They know where the back of the net is and have experienced players who won't be fazed by a raucous crowd.

The job of the home fans will be to inspire the youngish Perak side, rather than intimidate PKNS. Again, a near full house under the lights and a crackling atmosphere should make for a magnificent spectacle. Once again, what is good about the Malaysian football.

Johor Darul Ta'zim goalkeeper Farizal Marlias
Farizal Marlias will be keeping goal for Johor Darul Ta'zim against Kedah.

3. Young goalkeepers in the spotlight

With two such finely balanced FA Cup semifinals, a lot of attention will be focused on the goalkeepers. And both matches offer a fascinating comparison between experience and emerging talent.

At Larkin it will be JDT's Farizal Marlias against Kedah's Farhan abu Bakar. At 29 years of age, the 32-cap Farizal has been in enough big pressure games to be able to take this one in his stride. He was voted last season's Goalkeeper of the Year in Malaysia, and knows the pressure of the big occasion, having starred in international finals, like the Suzuki Cup and SEA Games, as well as the Malaysia and FA Cup Finals.

For Kedah's young pretender at the other end, this will be a huge opportunity for Farhan Abu Bakar to shine. And he normally relishes those occasions. The 23-year-old first came to the attention at the Summer Universiade in 2013 when, as a substitute custodian, he came on and made two penalty saves in a match against the Italian Students.

He followed that with an excellent season with Harimau Muda in the S.League last year. That persuaded Kedah to make him their number one for this term. And his form hasn't disappointed. A string of solid performances culminated in a brilliant display to thwart JDT in last week's 1-1 drawn MSL game between the teams.

Tall, strong, commanding, brave and, now, confident. If he carries on this progress, Farhan will become national number one. First, he has to demonstrate that he can play on the big stage. There are few bigger stages set to test a young keeper more than an intimidating atmosphere in a closely contested semifinal.

In the other tie, PKNS have much travelled Jeevananthan Gunasekaran between the sticks. The agile 36-year-old has had a career on the fringes largely because of the occasional high-profile howler. Good enough to be capped once by Malaysia, the veteran has an important role to play, and he would relish a final showdown against his home state, Johor.

By contrast, Perak's teenaged goalkeeper, Hafizul Hakim has had a remarkable season. From a spectacular opening day league debut against Kelantan, Hafizul has kept the highly respected Zamir Selamat out of the starting lineup. His three clean sheets are the league's joint best, and, add two more in the FA Cup, and this young man is having one flying start to his professional career.

But now there is expectation on his shoulders. Perak Stadium will be packed to the rafters, and the PKNS forward line is potent, with only two other clubs having scored more goals than the Red Ants in the top two divisions. If Hafizul can cope with the extra stresses and demands of the semifinal, this could be one young keeper to keep a close eye on.

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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