BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The 2017 FA Cup returns this Tuesday, with Super League and Premier League sides beginning their campaign in the second round.
The draw has resulted in two curious match-ups in this round, with 2016 Super League champions (and defending FA Cup winners) Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) taking on runners up Felda United FC, and 2016 Premier League winners Melaka United FC facing 2016 Premier League and FA Cup runners up PKNS FC.
Felda United vs JDT
Last season, JDT and Felda were about the only two sides involved in the title race, until the Southern Tigers' 3-2 win over the Fighters near the end of the season knocked the win out of Felda's sails, and JDT went on to capture the MSL title for an unprecedented third time in a row.
On Tuesday the Fighters face the Southern Tigers for the second time in less than three week, this time at home the Tun Abdul Razak Stadium. They last met in matchday two of the Super League (MSL) late last month, with the match won by JDT 3-1.
This time around, both sides are in desperate need to recover their forms, following recent results. Felda have won only one match this season, a slim 1-0 win over PKNS in their league opener, and have since that lost two matches and drawn once in the league. To make matters worse, just last week they lost their head coach Azmi Mohamed, who stepped down from his position.
JDT meanwhile will want to bounce back from last week's AFC Champions League 3-0 play-off trouncing by Gamba Osaka, and their goalless draw against Selangor at home in the league. Despite having promoted JDT II's Gabriel Guerra to the main side last weekend in a strange transfer done outside the transfer window, they could not find the back of the net against the Red Giants, and the fans have already called into question new head coach Benjamin Mora's credibility and the performance of the foreign players signed by the club for this season.
However, Felda's new foreign strikers Gastón Cellerino and Lucas Cano too have not done much to justify their signing by the club, having scored no goal between them at all since the season started.
Felda assistant head coach Mohd Nik is now back in the caretaker head coach role for the second time in less than a year, after he has had to do the same when Irfan Bakti Abu Salim departed the club just before the previous season ended.
At the start of the match against JDT, he is expected to field Malaysia forward Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, who will be paired up with Cellerino, as well as Malaysia winger Hadin Azman, Liberian midfielder Zah Rahan Krangar, veteran skipper Shukor Adan and goalkeeper Farizal Harun.
Mora meanwhile is expected to upend his JDT squad following last weekend's draw against Selangor. Guerra will be given a second shot to start, but either one of midfielders Brian Ferreira or Gonzalo Cabrera will be dropped. Amirulhadi Zainal too will likely be benched, while Fadhli Shas, who has had a resurgence this season, will be retained in the starting lineup along with goalkeeper Farizal Marlias. Mora may even give one or two of the backup squad members; such as Darren Lok, Afiq Fazail, and Dominic Tan their first start this season, against Felda.
Their head-to-head record suggests that the tie will go JDT's way. Out of their past five encounters, three were won by the Tigers, on by the Fighters, while the remaining match ending in a draw.
Melaka United vs PKNS
PKNS vs Melaka United in 2016. Photo by FMLLP
Last season's Premier League title race was a lot less close as compared to the one in the MSL, with the Mousedeers securing promotion and then the title with several matches to go. The Red Ants then snapped up the remaining promotional spot, and they are both currently in the top tier.
However this season it is PKNS who have performed better than Melaka. Despite losing their first two league matches, they then bounced back with giant-killing performances on the back of their forwards' red-hot forms; trouncing Selangor 5-3 before hammering the star-studded Perak 3-0.
Melaka, who in the off-season spent big on new signings and new head coach Eric Williams, meanwhile have recorded only one draw and two defeats in the league, most recently falling to a surprise 2-1 defeat to T-Team FC at home.
Williams now has the unenviable task of having to stop the rut within his side, and can be expected to make some changes to the squad. Last year's Premier League topscorer and skipper Ilija Spasojević should start again despite not having found the back of the net this season, as last year too he took sometime to start scoring, as will evergreen forward Amri Yahyah. South Korean midfielder Jeon Woo-young, having scored two goals already this season including the one against the Titans last weekend, is also likely to start.
PKNS head coach Elavarasan Elangowan will head into the match with relief, knowing that his side have scored eight goals in their past two matches and his players have started finding their forms.
Patrick Wleh, Safee Sali and Lucas Espindola have all scored in their last two matches, and they are very likely to start again against Melaka. Their defenders, despite conceding three against Selangor, did a much better job against Perak to keep a clean sheet, and their lineup is not expected to change. Gonzalo Soto will start, as will goalkeeper Zamir Selamat, who saved a penalty against his former club last weekend.
Although the single-legged tie will be held at Melaka's homeground the Hang Jebat Stadium, it is not expected to give them much of an advantage. Last year PKNS played over half of their home matches at the same venue, when their own home ground the Shah Alam Stadium under renovation.
Their head-to-head record is also tight. In recent years they have only met twice, in the Premier League last season, with each side winning one encounter.