MSL 2018 Preview: #1-#3 - The title contenders

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Wrapping the series of preview, here are the 3 teams that look the strongest bet to vie for the 2018 Super League title for the reward of an ACL spot

Pahang

Predicted finish in 2018: 3th
2017 season: 2nd in MSL

Head coach: Dollah Salleh

Notable transfers in: Chan Vathanaka, Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, Remezey Che Ros, Safuwan Baharudin, Alexandre Gomes, Bunyamin Omar

Notable transfer out: Wan Azraie, Saiful Nizam Miswan, Heo Jae-won, Joseph Kalang Tie, Syamim Yahya, Christie Jayaseelan

Important fixtures: v Johor Darul Ta'zim (March 30), ​v Kedah (May 5)

Dollah Salleh, Pahang, press conference, 24052017

Dollah returns to the helm after the end of his suspension as he looks to bring Pahang back up to the form prior to his absence from the pitch side. He has managed to hung on to young stars in Matthew Davies and Nor Azam Azih while managing to bring in arguably the most exciting of ASEAN imports in Chan Vathanaka.

However there could be plenty of problems headaches for Dollah after the departures of many senior figures from last season. On paper, Dollah may have a strong first XI but there's a distinct lack of depth in the squad that could be a problem once the season goes into full gear.

Cambodia's Chan Vathanaka celebrates his goal 20/11/2016

As Malaysian fans would remember from the fateful 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, Vathanaka has proven himself to be a handy striker with the pace and power to trouble defences. The Cambodian star has had previous experience in the Japanese league and looks favourite to finish the season as Pahang's top scorer, should he remain fit.

The lack of squad depth could be detrimental to Pahang's title challenge but are likely to be up there challenging, considering they have elected to ease their season schedule by turning down the opportunity to participate in the 2018 AFC Cup.

Kedah

Predicted finish in 2018: 2nd
2017 season: 4th

Head coach: Ramon Marcote

Notable transfers in: Syafiq Ahmad, Zac Anderson, Ken Ilso, Ahmad Fakri Saarani, Fitri Omar

Notable transfer out: Pablo Pallares, Alvaro Silva

Important fixtures: v Johor Darul Ta'zm (February 3), ​v Pahang (May 5)

Kedah's Baddrol Bakhtiar celebrating his goal against JDT 20/1/2017

Kedah will start the new 2018 season under the guidance of Ramon Marcote, who replaced Nidzam Adzha, who himself replaced Tan Cheng Hoe in the middle of last season. This will be the Spaniard's second time in charge after he was put in temporary rein when Tan went to do his coaching badges in China.

On the positive side, the Red Eagles have managed to keep the core of their team together despite losing two of their star imports from last season. Crucially, the likes of Syazwan Zainon, Liridon Krasniqi and Baddrol Bakhtiar have decided to stay put for the coming season.

It will take some time for the likes of Pallares and Silva to adapt to the squad and league while Sandro da Silva Mendonca adds another year to his age. Which will mean that the onus is on Krasniqi to be the main man once again.

Liridon Krasniqi, Kedah, Gary Steven Robbat, Johor Darul Ta'zim

The Kosovan was rumoured to be leaving Kedah to join Angers in Ligue 1 but the move hasn't materialised yet. Though the French club could yet come back in when the summer transfer window reopens in Europe.

Marcote will have to squeeze everything out of Krasniqi before that happens to ensure that Kedah could keep pace at the top of the table, where they are expected to finish but ultimately predicted to come just short.

Johor Darul Ta'zim

Predicted finish in 2018: Champions
2017 season: Champions

Head coach: Ulisses Morais

Notable transfers in: Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Adam Nor Azlin, La'Vere Corbin-Ong, Bruno Soares, Syafiq Ahmad, Hariss Harun

Notable transfer out: S. Chanturu, R. Gopinathan, Azamuddin Akil, Gonzalo Cabrera, Gabriel Guerra, Mahali Jasuli

Important fixtures: v Kedah (February 3), ​v Pahang (March 30)

Ulisses Morais, Johor Darul Ta'zim

The reigning Super League champions and they have been that for the last four seasons. The team that everyone want to beat but no one seem capable of coming close to challenge Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT). 

Ulisses Morais remains the man in charge of the team and the Portuguese's aim for the season is no doubt to continue the unprecedented effort of the Southern Tigers in monopolying the league title.

Despite their combined excellences throughout last season, Guerra and Cabrera will not be part of the team for the new season, with JDT making big changes throughout the squad. All eyes will be on Corbin-Ong when he takes to the field in the opening match of the season as Fazly Mazlan's form seemed to have faded away.

Safiq Rahim, Johor Darul Ta'zim

Hariss Harun and Jorge Pereyra Diaz may have returned to the squad but the attention and the centre of the team can only come from Safiq Rahim. The club captain remains the focal point of his team and as was evident during the match against Muangthong United, one of the few who can come away satisfied with his performance that night.

It will take a lot to stop JDT from clinching their fifth successive Super League title and it will be nothing short of a miracle if any team can do that. On the basis of their squad strength alone, JDT looks certain to nail another league title and be the first Malaysian team in the AFC Champions League group stage in 2019.

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