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Now that the 2013 edition of one of the continent's oldest football tournaments is near, Goal's Zulhilmi Zainal analyses the favourites and dark horse of Group A

Group A of the competition sees the runners up of the 2013 Malaysian Super League (MSL), Selangor go up against last year's Malaysia Cup runners up ATM, the 2013 Premier League runners up Sime Darby FC and also Johor FA.
The eventual table toppers and second-placed team of this group will go up against their counterparts in Group D, the same group that contains LionsXII who are the favourites to emerge as the group champions. As much as Malaysian teams want to show character and courage against the Singaporean side, the more practical and sensible route for them would be to avoid meeting the MSL champions in the early part of the knockout stage.

The army boys came very close to winning the cup in their very succesful run in the previous season, and this time they will be hoping to perform better. They were one of the league's strongest contenders this season, if not for their poor results in the last few matches which was all due to the absence of their top striker and the league's top scorer, Marlon Alex James. Although they are one of the favourites to top the group, their dependence on him is bordering on over-reliance, and ATM would do well to come up with a 'Plan B' as James is reportedly injured and is set to miss the first few matches.

Although the MSL side Johor Darul Takzim have lit up football in this country after their rebranding under a new administration, their 'sister' side, Johor FA have not had a successful season in the Premier League. Their push for promotion have ended in a close third position, as they were hampered by a lack of consistency. Being drawn in a tight group means that they are the least-favoured team to qualify for the quarter-finals. 

The 2013 Premier League runners up are definitely the dark horse of Group A, buoyed by their momentum from gaining promotion to next season's MSL, and also by the Golden Boot-winning performance of their Croatian hitman, Karlo Primorac. As the dark horse, they need to approach the group stage in a methodical manner, and that is by nicking a point when playing the favourites, Selangor and ATM, as the two sides are definitely going to go in hammer and tongs when facing each other, which means either one is bound to lose. What is then left to do is to ensure they win both matches against Johor FA, and hope that Selangor or ATM slip up in a few more matches. Sounds easy enough? Now if only they can find fans to come support them at the stadium.

Despite being 32-time champions of the competition, the most recent editions have not been too successful for the Red Giants, as they last won it in 2005. They can be extremely frustrating when they are not performing well, but when they are single-minded, they can do the unthinkable, the latest of which was sling-shotting from fourth to second in the final stretch of the MSL to take the remaining 2014 AFC Cup spot.

Although they are still one of the two favourites in this group, they must ensure they hit the ground running to prepare for the later stages when going up against stronger teams, and there is no better way to do this than to overcome ATM, the other group favourite. The two sides have met three times this season, and Selangor have won two of the matches. But the scoreline of these matches have been really close, reflecting the unpredictable nature of encounters involving the two sides.


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