BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Johor Darul Ta'zim reduced the gap between them and Super League leaders Pahang to just one point, when they defeated the Elephants 3-2 at Larkin on Friday. The visitors opened the scoring through Brazilian forward Matheus Alves, but Hazwan Bakri responded with a brace before JDT captain Safiq Rahim added the Tigers' third. Alves pulled one back for Pahang but it was not enough.
Going into the match, fourth-placed JDT needed a win in order to pull closer to league leaders Pahang, although the home side had a game in hand. The visitors meanwhile were intent on keeping the top spot, which they claimed from Kedah in the previous round.
The lineup for both teams raised a peculiar piece of statistics. M-League organiser Football Malaysia LLP (FMLLP) pointed out through its social media that including this match, both sides were fielding the same first eleven for the third consecutive league match.
The Southern Tigers' boss Benjamin Mora fielded Gabriel Guerra, Gonzalo Cabrera and Bakri in front, while opting for an all-local midfield lineup in captain Safiq, Afiq Fazail and Nazmi Faiz Mansor. Azrif Nasrulhaq, Junior Eldstal, Marcos Antonio and Kunanlan Subramaniam protected Izham Tarmizi in between the sticks.
The Elephants' head coach Dollah Salleh opted for the partnership of Ashari Samsudin and Matheus Alves in front, and in midfield it was Syamim Yahya, Azam Abdul Azih, Joseph Kalang Tie and Mohamadou Sumareh. Matthew Davies, Faisal Rosli, Afif Amiruddin and Heo Jae-won were the defenders, and the goalkeeper was Wan Azraie Wan Teh.
As expected, sparks flew almost straight from kickoff. Safiq nearly scored barely 15 seconds in if not for Jae-won's intervention. Two minutes later, Sumareh was put through by a through pass, but his shot was too close to goalkeeper Izham.
The first goal came in the 14th minute. A poor pass by Eldstal was intercepted by Azam, who then sent a through pass to Alves. The Brazilian had no problem beating Izham, slotting the ball low past the custodian.
In the 27th minute, the referee awarded a freekick to the home team for a foul at the edge of the Pahang box. Safiq tried curling it over the wall, but it struck the wall instead. However the referee blew his whistle again, and this time pointed to the spot. Replay showed that Afif had raised his hand to block the freekick, and he was booked for his trouble.
Safiq again was the taker, but yet again he was denied, this time by Azraei who dived the right way to keep the penalty out. However the rebound fell near Hazwan to the right of the goal, and he smashed it in. Azraei did get a hand to Hazwan's follow up, but the powerful shot simply glanced off his palms and into the net.
The penalty goal was reminiscent of an almost similar goal that was scored in the dying minutes of the league match between Kedah and Selangor just two days earlier. But unlike Juliano Mineiro's controversial equaliser for Selangor, replays showed that Hazwan had been well outside the penalty box when the penalty was taken.
The Malaysia forward needed only eight minutes to beat Azraei for the second time in the match. Again Safiq had a hand in it, albeit more directly this time. He sent an inch-perfect through pass that released Hazwan, and the forward this time chose finesse over power to finish the chance, slotting it in past the Pahang goalkeeper.
10 minutes into the second half, JDT doubled their lead. Kunanlan sprinted with the ball into the Pahang penalty area from the right, and made a cut back. Safiq was there right in the middle of the box to receive the pass, and smashed the ball in with his first touch.
However against the run of play, the visitors managed to pull one back in the 67th minute. Safiq's two-footed lunge on a Pahang player 30 meters from the JDT goal was penalised with a yellow card and a freekick to Pahang. Alves decided to take the chance and sent a rocket of a shot towards the goal, the ball hit the crossbar, and bounced over the line and made the scoreline 3-2.
Substitute Cristie Jayaseelan could have equalised eight minutes from time when he was fed by Soumareh from the right, but his try ended up over the crossbar.
The match ended 3-2, a third consecutive win in the league for the homeside, and they are now separated by just one point from Pahang.
JDT: Izham (GK), Azrif (Fazly 80'), Eldstal, Antonio, Kunanlan, Nazmi (Amirulhadi 58'), Afiq, Safiq (C), Cabrera, Hazwan (Mahali 74'), Guerra.
Pahang: Azraie (GK), Faisal, Won Heo, Afif, Davies (C), Syamim, Azam (Insa 69'), Joseph (Cristie 60'), Soumareh, Ashari (Dike 80'), Alves.