BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Following a tumultuous start to the 2018 season that saw them lose Maniam Pachaiappan as head coach and led to the resignation of president Datuk Seri Subahan Kamal, Selangor have finally overturned their mediocre form.
The Red Giants are currently on a six-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, their best run since a seven-match unbeaten streak in July 2017. Recently they held the more-fancied Pahang and Perak to 1-1 draws in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) to build up an eight-point gap from the relegation zone, while a 4-0 thumping of PKNS FC in the first leg of their FA Cup semi-final tie last Saturday means they now have one foot in the cup final.
The most obvious reason behind Selangor's resurgence is of course their Spanish striker and current MSL top-scorer Rufino Segovia, who scored a stagerring nine goals in these six matches. But the 33-year old was already scoring consistently, even when Selangor were going through their earlier poor run.
Rufino. Photo from FA Selangor's Facebook page
What is not very apparent is the return to form of their veteran player and vice-captain Amri Yahyah. The former Malaysia international previously had been deployed mostly as a forward, but head coach Nazliazmi Nasir's decision to field him as a midfielder has been able to solve one of Selangor's long-time problems; their weak engine room.
Since last season, the Red Giants have been unable to go toe-to-toe against teams with a strong midfield such as Kedah and JDT, a predicament that was not resolved even with the signing of Indonesian midfielder Evan Dimas Darmono and the arrival of Spanish centre back Alfonso de la Cruz, who for a time was bizarrely deployed as a defensive midfielder instead.
But Amri has been flourishing as an attacking midfielder recently, and has been succeeding in helping his club win the battle in the middle of the park. The 37-year old is not an out-and-out midfielder by any means and doesn't make pinpoint passes or sit deep when defending, but what he brings to the table is unpredictability when on the ball.
He has the technique to take the ball past defensive midfielders and closer to the danger area, and he constantly keeps the opponents guessing his next move; will he stall to let a teammate run into space, or will he try to take it down the touchline?
And Selangor have allowed him to dictate their attacks in this new-found role as playmaker to great effect. In a league match at home against Perak on June 19, the evergreen player realised that Perak's central midfield pairing of Brendan Gan and Khairul Anuar Zamri were too strong for the home side, and he shifted his penetration to the wings. It eventually worked, when a free kick was awarded by the referee when he was fouled near that side, and Amri himself scored from the free kick.
Selangor vs Perak match highlights
This became apparent again very recently, in their league match against Pahang on Wednesday. Amri started this match as a forward and their midfield was again ineffectual, and they went behind early in the second half. Nazliazmi then took off Evan for Azamuddin Akil with Amri dropping down to midfield and Azamuddin playing up front, and only then were the visitors able to gain footing in the match. The tempo and momentum changed hands, as everytime the ball was with Amri, his Selangor teammates would run into space to his left and right, troubling the Pahang defence. Selangor and Amri would be rewarded in the 62nd minute, when the former JDT player sent Rufino through, and the Spaniard was able to slot the ball past goalkeeper Helmi Eliza Elias for the equaliser.
Pahang vs Selangor match highlights
Unsurprisingly, Goal picked the Tanjung Karang-born player as the man of the match in both encounters.
Apart from their semi-final tie against PKNS, Selangor have also played PKNS in two back-to-back league matches in June, with Amri playing as a forward in both of them. The one in Cheras on June 6 ended in a laboured 2-1 win while the match in Shah Alam four days later ended in a 2-2 draw. In their first leg cup encounter last Saturday Amri was fielded as a midfielder, and the Red Giants was victorius with a 4-0 win.
Coincidence? Perhaps not.
With Amri shoring up the Selangor midfield and Rufino hungry for goals, the Red Giants stand a good chance of avoiding MSL relegation, and capturing their sixth FA Cup title.