BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Following a one-month mid-season break for the fasting month and the Aidilfitri celebration, the second stretch of the 2017 Malaysian football season is scheduled to begin this Saturday, with the M-League, Malaysia Cup and Malaysia U22 campaigns.
The Aidilfitri celebration is still in full swing in the country, but for those in the footballing fraternity the festivities are expected to end soon, as July will see M-League clubs that have qualified for the Malaysia Cup play in a staggering nine matches, beginning on the first day of the month; this Saturday.
As we await this Saturday, here are Goal's wishlist for the remainder of the footballing season.
Quit yer fixtures congestion belly-achin'
Let's get the most evident point out of the way. With July expected to be a tight month for most clubs, football writers in the country have probably pre-emptively prepared those 'X coach complains about fixtures congestion' headlines. Ever since the Malaysia Cup began to be held concurrently as the M-League instead of after the leagues are concluded, head coaches have ran into problems managing their team selection and maintaining form consistency, and blamed the scheduling.
However, the hectic schedule was not just recently announced, and it has been the second season that the cup is played at the same time as the leagues. Furthermore, league organiser Football Malaysia LLP (FMLLP) has increased the allowed maximum squad size, so as to allow squad rotation to be better utilised by coaches.
In addition to this, the kick off of the Malaysia Cup will perhaps tip the balance in the favour of the less-fancied teams that have not qualified for the cup, and clubs whose under 23 players did not get called up for the Malaysia U22 centralised training and the U23 AFC Championship qualifiers in July.
Give us qualification, or give us gold medal
July and August will be the Malaysia U22 national team's go time. From July 19 to 23 they have the AFC qualifiers in Bangkok, while in the following month they will compete in the 2017 SEA Games' football competition.
The Malaysian FA (FAM) and the team officials have expressed slightly conflicting targets, but the general objective gleaned from interviews with team manager Datuk Yusoff Mahadi and head coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee is that priority will be on success in SEA Games, which Malaysia will host in Kuala Lumpur.
Critics will probably accuse FAM of thinking small with this objective, but it cannot be denied that the football gold medal is the most important gold medal in the biennial regional sports competition, especially to the hosts.
And sadly to say, when it comes to football in Malaysia, the failure to reach a more ambitious achievement can often be hushed with success at a lesser level.
Be that as it may, no fan will accept failure in both competitions, thus it is imperative that Kim Swee's charges attain success in at least one campaign. It's either they qualify for the AFC Championship and fail to capture the SEA Games gold, or fail to qualify for the AFC Championship but capture the SEA Games gold, but not neither. However, no one is going to say no to success in both campaigns, it must be said.
No more Selangor vs Kedah cup final
The previous two editions of the Malaysia Cup have seen the same two sides face off in the final match. The 2015 edition saw Selangor beat Kedah 2-0 in regulation time at the Shah Alam Stadium to lift their historic 33rd title, while the following year the Red Eagles avenged their defeat to the Red Giants on penalties, also at the same venue.
For the sake of diversity, let's hope we get to see two other teams appear in the final this year.
Selangor have been pulling an Arsenal; using the cup, which doesn't offer its winners a spot in Asia unlike the Super League and the FA Cup, as a crutch to show that they are capable of winning silverware, but without having to bother themselves with those pesky continental competitions afterwards. It's time they shed that mentality. Plus, 'Mission 34' doesn't quite have the same ring as 'Mission 33'.
For Kedah, they have won this year's FA Cup, and are still in the running to challenge for the Super League title, so perhaps their priority should be on the league, especially when their young squad have had five of its members called up for Malaysia U22.
Perhaps this year it could be the turn of Perak, currently fourth in the standings, and whose last appearance in a cup final was in 2007.
Or perhaps it's a chance for dark horse T-Team to prove their mettle. They have been consistently punching above their weight since their last-minute promotion before the start of the 2016 season, and were only knocked out in the 2016 Malaysia Cup at the semi-final stage by Selangor.
Kedah vs Selangor in 2016 Malaysia Cup final. Photo by Mohd Khairol Rizal/CSN Sportstalk
...Or maybe it's JDT's turn
For any other teams, the success of capturing of just one title is a cause for celebration. But for 2015 AFC Cup winners and 2014, 2015, and 2016 Super League winners Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT), their failure to defend their FA Cup title and their early exit in the AFC Cup this season means they have only one chance left to qualify for the continental stage, and one other title to capture in order to make it another double-title season.
The good thing is they are currently leading the league with a six-point margin, and can still concentrate on the Malaysia Cup, a competition they previously did not put much stock in.
In the previous seasons, in the second half of the season JDT would be fighting battles on three fronts; the AFC Cup, the league and the Malaysia Cup, and they undertandably concentrated more on the first two competitions, as proven when they did not even make it past the group stage of the Malaysia Cup in 2016.
Perhaps this year the Southern Tigers will try to win their first ever Malaysia Cup title since their rebranding in 2012, the only silverware they have not won, which means bad news for other teams that want to try and capture the title.
Harimau Malaya must start performing, by defeating Hong Kong
Maybe Malaysia's 2-1 home defeat to Lebanon in the opening match of their 2019 Asian Cup third-stage qualification group campaign is something that was justifiable. After all, new head coach Nelo Vingada had only been appointed less than one month prior to the encounter.
However, in September and October they will take on Hong Kong in two group matches; at home and on the road, and this is when the Portuguese coach and the new FAM leadership must prove themselves.
After all, by September 5, the date of the first Hong Kong encounter, set to be played at home, Vingada will have had almost four months to scout for the best players and prepare his team.
Of course coaches usually need longer than that to develop their team, but that is why Hong Kong (current FIFA rank 148th), a side that are almost on par as Malaysia, are picked as the benchmark, and not the other two teams; DPR Korea and Lebanon.
Furthermore, the Harimau Malaya have not won since November 20 last year, a 3-2 victory against Cambodia in the 2016 AFF Championship group stage, so a victory over the East Asian side will go a long way towards winning Malaysian fans' belief in the new FAM leadership.
FAM president Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim (left) and Nelo Vingada. Photo from FAM