The new Malaysia Super League (MSL) season is about to kick off this weekend, with several changes having been introduced in order to make the Malaysian top tier more exciting.
Most prominently, each club now are allocated one ASEAN foreign player slot, and almost all teams have eagerly snapped up players from the region in order to promote themselves better.
This season, the M-League will also revert to its pre-2016 scheduling, whereby all 22 rounds will be played to completion, with its later stages not played concurrently with the Malaysia Cup anymore. Now clubs will be able to prioritise all their resources on the league, without having to sacrifice either their cup or league campaign.
On top of this, MSL teams now have a better reward to encourage them to capture the league title; an automatic slot in the 2019 AFC Champions League for the league champions.
Starting from today, Goal will be previewing the teams that will be competing in the 2018 MSL, as well as predicting their league position after all 22 matchdays have been played.
#12: NEGERI SEMBILAN
Head coach: Jorg Steinebrunner
Notable transfers in: Ahmad Syihan Hazmi Mohamed (Kelantan), Rizal Fahmi Rosid (Selangor), Renārs Rode (FK RFS), Fakhrul Aiman Sidid (Felda United), Fauzan Dzulkifli (PKNS FC), Kim Do-heon (Seongnam FC), Flávio Beck (Pusamania Borneo), Khairul Izuan Rosli (Kelantan), Nicolás Vélez (Suphanburi), Prak Mony Udom (PKR Svay Rieng), Thanabalan Nadarajah (Felcra FC, loan end), Ferris Danial Mat Nasir (Terengganu)
Notable transfers out: Lee Tuck (Terengganu FC), Bruno Castanheira (Terengganu FC II), Sean Selvaraj, Ashmawi Yakin, Shahrul Igwan Samsudin (Selangor), Rahizi Mohd Rasib, Norhafizzuan Jailani, Hariri Safii (Terengganu City), Sabre Abu, Farderin Kadir (PKNS, loan end), Nik Shahrul Azim Abdul Halim (Kelantan, loan end), Shazlan Alias (Melaka United), Nemanja Vidić, Jonathan Béhé
Negeri Sembilan during their 2018 team launching event
The Deers will be making their first appearance in the Malaysian top tier since 2013, and they are rather lucky to get that that chance again. They did not win promotion in the 2017 Premier League, rather they were one of the two teams to replace Felda United and T-Team FC (now Terengganu FC II).
They have replaced all their foreign players this season, and this season Negeri, who in previous seasons were notorious for inexplicably axing performing imports in the mid-season only to undergo a drop in performance in the second half of the season, did not even wait for the season to start to get up to their usual shenanigans. Just last weekend, they controversially decided to replace Singapore international Madhu Mohana, an early pre-season signing with Cambodia international Prak Mony Udom, claiming that the Singaporean has picked up a lengthy injury. Madhu's cryptic social media posts following the announcement suggest that there may be more to the story.
The signing of former Korea Republic international and West Bromwich Albion player Kim Do-heon meanwhile has garnered them media attention, but it is doubtful that the attacking midfielder, now 35 years old, will be able to carry the team, despite having been immediately appointed team captain.
Despite this, Negeri have made a number of signings that could prove vital, on top of the local players retained from last season. Malaysia U23 striker Thanabalan Nadarajah returns from his season-long loan spell at then third tier side Felcra FC, and although he did not make much impact with the Rivals, he has had a splendid year with the Young Tigers; most recently scoring in their 2-1 2018 AFC U-23 Championship quarter-final defeat to Korea Republic U23. Now that Thanabalan is at a top tier club, he must prove that he has what it takes to transition into the Malaysia senior national team.
On top of the young striker, there is still the dependable Nasriq Baharom, who was their captain throughout the past two seasons. The 30-year old may have been replaced as skipper, but his experience can still be relied on in order to marshall the defence.
Their return to the Super League will also herald the resumption of the so-called Naning Derby, against neighbouring state team Melaka United. Fans will not have to wait long for the first fixture, with the Mousedeers hosting the first fixture in round three on February 11, and the Deers hosting the return fixture on July 27.
On top of this, their league survival should also be decided through their matches against teams that are also predicted to finish in the bottom rung. One of these should be PKNP FC; the other replacement side in the 2018 MSL apart from Negeri. Negeri will play away to PKNP on the first matchday, and host the return fixture on July 15.
#11: MELAKA UNITED
Head coach: Eduardo Almeida
Notable transfers in: Zamir Selamat, Azmi Muslim (PKNS FC), Chanturu Suppiah, Gopinathan Ramachandra (JDT), Fakri Saarani (Kedah), Nurshamil Abd Ghani (Selangor, loan end), Nicholas Swirad (JDT II), Shazlan Alias (Negeri Sembilan), Steven Thicot (AEL), Tiago Gomes (Doxa), Yahor Zubovich (Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino), Shahdan Sulaiman (loan Tampines Rovers)
Notable transfers out: Azinee Taib, Fandi Othman, Nicholas Swirad (JDT II, loan end) Ahmad Ezrie Shafizie, Jasmin Mecinović, Izzaq Faris Ramlan, Marko Šimić, Felipe Almeida De Souza (release).
2018 will be the Mousedeers' second season back in the top tier, unfortunately we predict that it is also their last one. Despite winning promotion to the 2017 MSL in style as 2016 Premier League champions, Melaka struggled to find their footing in their first season back in Malaysia's top division.
The appointment of Portuguese head coach Eduardo Almeida steadied the ship somewhat, and the one-time first division winners beat the drop by producing shock wins against the more-fancied Perak and Selangor.
However, Melaka's luck is expected to run out this season, with the teams that were weaker than them having been relegated to the second tier last season, and the teams promoted in their places; Kuala Lumpur and Terengganu FC looking more formidable than them.
Out of their four foreign signings last year, South Korean midfielder Jeon Woo-young was the only import retained, and he is expected to play a key figure with the Mousedeers this season. They too managed to secure the signings of two former JDT players Chanturu Suppiah and Gopinathan Ramachandra, as well as former Malaysia international Fakri Saarani from Kedah.
On top of this, a number of their key local players have stayed for another season; such as defenders Khuzaimie Piee and Khair Jones, forward Fauzi Roslan, and midfielder Puaneswaran Gunasekaran. In the meantime, 2015 FAM League top-scorer Nurshamil Ghani has returned from his season-long loan spell at Selangor.
On top of their fixtures against their rivals to the north Negeri Sembilan, fans should also look forward to their matches against their neighbours to the south; Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT). Although by quality and trophy collection the two sides are hardly comparable, in 2017 their matches still produced off-the-pitch handbags between the two teams' then head coaches. JDT will host the first encounter on February 24, while the Hang Jebat Stadium will host the return fixture on June 27.
#10: PKNP FC
Head coach: Abu Bakar Fadzim
Notable transfers in: Keo Sok Pheng (Phnom Penh Crown)
Notable transfers out: Gilberto Fortunato (Felda United), Kim Hyun Woo (Terengganu FC), Sukri Hamid (Kelantan), Syazwan bin Zaipol Bahari (Perak), Vincent Weijl.
Abu Bakar Fadzim. Photo from Felda United
PKNP are one of the two teams, alongside Negeri Sembilan, to have been selected to replace Felda and T-Team. But unlike the more established state side, the Perak-based club may just squeeze through to safety on the final matchday of the league.
First of all, in the capable hands of head coach Abu Bakar Fadzim, the club consistently defied odds last season, to finish the 2017 Premier League in third while reaching the Malaysia Cup and FA Cup quarter-finals, despite fielding mostly young and unknown players.
This season, PKNP are looking to continue their giant-killing feat, despite reportedly only looking to sign four foreigners as opposed to the maximum allowed five. That may be possible, after all since they have managed to keep star player and captain Shahrel Fikri Fauzi from leaving in the transfer window.
Shahrel Fikri Fauzi. Photo from Football Malaysia LLP
Apart from matches against predicted fellow relegation battlers, PKNP are expected to play tough matches against Perak, on April 15 and May 25. Surprisingly, even though the two sides have been sharing the Ipoh Stadium, they have never met competitively before.
Another fixture that fans should look forward to is against PKNS FC, although perhaps for a peculiar reason. It doesn't take the most perceptive fan out there to notice that their names are similar but for one letter. This is because their names are Bahasa Melayu acronyms for the names of companies that own the teams respectively. PKNP stands for Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Perak (Perak State Development Corporation), while PKNS stands for Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Selangor (Selangor State Development Corporation). No derby moniker has been coined yet for the fixture, as the two clubs too have never played each other before, but they will face off on April 4 and July 17.
Teams number 9, 8 and 7 will be revealed in Part 2 tomorrow!