Negeri Sembilan to unleash new boy Henrique in Malaysia Cup vs. Felda
Three time A-League Grand Final winner Henrique could be Negeri Sembilan's trump card as the second tier side look to play giant killers in the 2016 Malaysia Cup which begins this week.
The Brazilian-born ex-Brisbane Roar attacker will get his first taste of Southeast Asian football when his new side travel to Jengka to face Felda United in their opening Group D match on Tuesday.
Negeri, who are second in the Malaysia Premier League, could have a vastly different look with Henrique and French striker Goran Jerkovic controversially drafted in to replace in-form Australians Joel Chianese and Andrew Nabbout. Mixed heritage players Curran Ferns and Ben King are also likely to be in the mix.
"Henrique's pedigree is undisputed and he has all the skills necessary, both mental and physical, to have a great impact on Malaysian football," Negeri head coach Gary Phillips told ESPN FC. "He has scored goals for Brisbane Roar in A-League finals to win them the championship and can play anywhere in the attacking line, or in behind as a traditional South American playmaker."
31-year-old Henrique grew up in Sao Paulo, spent a season with Feyenoord in the Netherlands, but made his name with the Brisbane Roar over seven seasons, scoring 39 goals in 136 games. He netted the winning goal for the Queensland club against 2014 Asian champions, the Western Sydney Wanderers, in that year's A-League Grand Final.
Henrique also won the A-League Grand Final in 2011 and 2012 but was used mostly as an impact player for Brisbane in the 2015-16 season by coach John Aloisi.
A traditional target man, 29-year-old Jerkovic was born in Lyon from Serbian heritage and has Asian experience at Iran's Esteghlal FC and Thai clubs Bangkok Glass and Army United.
Australian-born Ferns is a central midfielder while King, a left-sided utility player, comes from England. Both have a Malaysian parent and are 23 years old, with short stints on trial in the Johor Darul Ta'zim system. Ferns already has his Malaysian passport while King is in the process of acquiring his.
Phillips is hopeful that both can add much-needed depth for promotion-chasing Negeri.
"Both Ferns and King have already provided more vitality to our training sessions and, with this added intensity and competition for places, it gives the coaching staff more options and flexibility," Phillips said.
"Curran is hard working midfielder who has played with Brisbane City in Australia's National Premier League while Ben is a very mobile left handed player who can score goals, with an appetite for hard work."
Negeri, who lost 4-1 to eventual champions JDT in the third round of the 2016 FA Cup, are hopeful of making a better run in the Malaysia Cup. Also in Group D are fellow Premier League side Melaka United and Mike Mulvey's Terengganu FA.
But Tuesday's away game against Felda United on the artificial pitch of the Tun Abdul Razak Stadium, will be an immense test. Felda are just two points behind leaders JDT in the Malaysia Super League.
"It will be very difficult for us to travel to Felda with a four-hour bus ride coming on the back of an eight-week break including four days off last week for Hari Raya," Phillips said. "We want to leave Felda with our heads held high because gaining respect in this competition is important."
The next two months could define Negeri's season as they chase promotion to the Super League for the first time since 2013. Phillips helped Sabah return to the top flight in 2010 but admits that this is a bigger challenge, with Negeri vying with Melaka United, Kuala Lumpur and PKNS FC for the two promotion spots.
"July and August are critical," Phillips said. "We are going into the unknown, with eight games in 28 days on the back of two months off.
"Every team's depth, injury management, planning and discipline will be tested. It's all hands on deck."
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.