BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Ever since the rebranding of Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) in 2012 and Pahang's return to the top flight in 2013, the two sides have served up what has been considered to be among the feistiest current rivalries in Malaysian football.
Fan brawls, match suspension due to overcrowding, inflammatory tifos are among the incidents that have flared up during matches involving the two sides, just within the relatively shot space of three seasons.
A past JDT-Pahang match. Photo by Johor Fan Club Facebook page
In 2016 however, the rivalry cooled somewhat due to the decline experienced by the Elephants which almost saw them relegated again. But that did not mean the Southern Tigers were taking it any easier when the two sides met last season, as JDT hammered Pahang 3-0 and 6-0 in their two Super League (MSL) matches. JDT then went on to capture their third consecutive league title, while Pahang were rescued from relegation by a controversial retroactive decision taken against Kedah by the Malaysian FA (FAM), which handed a match win to the Elephants, as well the points they needed to avoid relegation.
On Friday, the two sides meet for the first time in 2017, in round eight of the Super League (MSL), and their rivalry is set to be rekindled again. JDT are now fourth but with a game in hand, and Pahang are currently leading the standings, with both sides separated by five points.
This season, which the Elephants had begun with a public apology from the club president, they have learnt their lesson from past year's gaffes, and are back in top form. Out of seven matches, they have won in five and drawn and lost one each, and have won their past three league matches.
The Tigers in the meantime had gone through some initial hiccups following the eleventh hour replacement of former head coach Mario Gomez with Benjamin Mora, but have now improved, following their back-to-back wins in the past two matches. Out of six matches, JDT have won three, drawn two and lost one.
And although their 2-1 away defeat to Perak on February 18 finally put a stop to their long unbeaten streak in the league, at home they still have not been beaten in all competitions since 28 November 2015, and this may be a record that will work in their favour against Pahang.
Since their rivalry began in 2013, the two sides have met 14 times excluding the 2016 season, with Pahang winning six of those encounters, JDT three, and five matches ending in draws. And more tellingly, in those three seasons the Elephants have never beaten the Tigers at Larkin.
Pahang. Photo by Pahang FA Facebook
At the start of the match, Mora is set to pick Gonzalo Cabrera who scored both their goals against Sarawak last Tuesday, and Gabriel Guerra, who scored a hat-trick against T-Team FC last Saturday, with Malaysia forward Ahmad Hazwan Bakri given another chance to prove himself. Safiq Rahim is expected to partner up with Nazmi Faiz Mansor in midfield, while Marcos Antonio and Junior Eldstal will man the two centre back positions, with Izham Tarmizi as the man between the sticks.
Dollah, who has made maintaning momentum as a key to his team's performance this season, is very likely to pick the tried and tested on Friday. That means current MSL joint topscorer Matheus Alves, as well as foreign signings Mohamadou Sumareh and Jae-Won Heo. In-form midfielders Joseph Kalang Tie and Ahmad Syamim Yahya too may start, as well as former Malaysia international Ashaari Shamsuddin. Afif Amiruddin and team captain Matthew Davies too are expected to be picked, to protect goalkeeper Wan Azraie Wan Teh.
JDT may be the favourites going into the match, but Pahang may yet put in a spirited shift against their rivals. But win, lose, or draw, neutral fans can expect an entertaining and testy affair at Larkin come Friday evening.