BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The start of the 2017 Malaysian football season is shaping up to be among the most disorganised start to a new season in recent years. Several teams had threatened to withdraw due to lack of funding, fixtures were released with teams still without a home ground, and at the last minute, several grounds were found to have inadequate lighting resulting in changes to kick-off times.
It's a good thing then that every new Super League season starts strong with the charity shield, the Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Cup, which pits last season's league champions against the Malaysia Cup champions.
This season, the league will be kicked off by last year's league and cup winners Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) and Malaysia Cup champions Kedah, at the Southern Tigers' home, the Tan Sri Dato Haji Hassan Yunos Stadium.
JDT were always going to be favourites going into the match, but on Wednesday evening, just two days before the match, they made a massive announcement; the sudden departure of the massively-successful Argentinian head coach Mario Gomez.
While JDT II head coach Benjamin Mora was quickly announced as the Argentine's replacement, this brief period of relative instability will be a good chance for the Red Eagles, one of the few sides slated by pundits to be this season's title challengers, to upset the home side and prove their mettle.
After all, when met during the pre-season, Kedah head coach Tan Cheng Hoe and midfielder Syazwan Zainon both expressed their intention of upsetting the home team in front of their own crowd in the match.
"Last year we lifted the Malaysia Cup, so I hope we can begin the coming season with another title, just to motivate us.
“We will go there with a positive mindset, and if we go there with that mindset, the result will be positive,” said Syazwan last week.
Meanwhile Cheng Hoe said: “There is no guarantee that in any football game that one team will definitely win the tie, and we have to chance the upset them. As a coach, I want to win there.”
In the pre-season, the Southern Tigers made a number of significant transfers. Out went 2016 league golden boot winner Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Juan Martin Lucero, Hariss Harun, Nazrin Nawi, Jasazrin Jamaluddin, Amri Yahyah and Safee Sali, and in came top Malaysian stars Hazwan Bakri, R. Gopinathan, Safawi Rasid, Haziq Nadzli and Syahrul Azwari, and new foreign players Brian Ferreira, Gonzalo Cabrera and Jerónimo Barrales.
Kedah meanwhile were a lot more conservartive in thetransfer window, retaining almost all of their key local players. The only changes made were to their foreign legion, with Sandro da Silva returning to the squad following a long injury, and the signing of Danish forward Ken Ilso and Australian defender Zac Anderson, as replacements for former New Zealand international Shane Smeltz, Brazilian loanee Thiago Augusto Fernandez and South Korean defender Bang Seung-hwan.
In that way, Cheng Hoe can be said to possess a bit more stability going into the new season, having to work on fewer new players than the defending champions.
In their pre-season friendlies, both sides had differing results, although JDT faced tougher opponents than Kedah. JDT beat Singapore's Geyland United 5-0, and in their friendly series in Thailand, they drew 1-1 against Chonburi FC, and lost 1-0 to both Air Force United and Buriram United.
Many have predicted the Red Eagles to be main challengers to JDT in the league this season, and they have no better chance of beginning to prove those predictions right, than defeating the Invincibles to take home the charity shield trophy this Friday.