BY OOI KIN FAI Follow on Twitter
Felda United were the surprise package of 2016 as they kept pace with Johor Darul Ta'zim for most parts of the season before losing out to the eventual league champions. Changes to the coaching staff and players for the 2017 could be a very different story for the Fighters in the new season.
Irfan Bakti could not be retained and Azmi Mohamed has been tasked to take over the reins. Comparatively, the latter does not possess the same experience in handling a Super League side as what Irfan had in his resume. Yet, it is good to see that Felda are willing to give younger coaches an opportunity at the top level.
Adding to that are also the loss of key players that helped them last year. Gone are Forkey Doe, Lutfulla Turaev, Gilberto Marangoni, Thiago Augusto, Christie Jayaseelan and Syamim Yahya. The turnover is huge and it's almost completely new bonds and partnerships that Azmi will have to build from scratch. On the bright side, key player Zah Rahan has stayed with the club.
Their success in coming second last year in the league also meant that Felda will be participating in the AFC Cup this year and that could well be where the team's focus is. For most of the players in the squad, this is their first sniff of the action in Asia's second tier cup tournament and one that each one of them will relish to be involved in.
Getting in seasoned professionals in Fakrul Aiman and Fazrul Hazli were great businesses done by Felda. All three are more known for their attacking outputs and on their day, could really hurt oppositions.
On the imports side, Felda have been boosted by the signings of Mootaz Junaidi from Al-Ansar, Gaston Cellerino who has experiences in Spain and young Argentine forward in the shape of Lucas Cano. A former Argentina Juniors players, the 21-year-old Cano could well be one to look out for.
Despite an almost new line-up of foreign players, the two incomings that really catches the eye are Norhsharul Idlan Talaha and Wan Zack Haikal. Both has suffered in stature after once being the first names on the team sheet of the national team. This is an opportunity for both to recover and find their path again.
Very hard to get a completely new team to gel and even harder when the focus might not be on domestic competition. Expect Felda to put their impetus on the AFC Cup and with that, could mean a mid table finish in the Super League for them with quarter final appearances in the domestic cup competitions.