BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Defending champions Kedah recorded a 3-2 win over 2015 champions and 2016 runners up Selangor in their first leg Malaysia Cup quarter-final match at the Selayang Stadium on Friday. Ken Ilso Larsen put them two goals ahead within the first 15 minutes, but Selangor forward Rufino Segovia pulled one back for the hosts after the start of the second half. Syazwan Zainon restored Kedah's two-goal lead, but Rufino doubled his tally just a minute later to give the Red Giants a slim chance of overturning the tie in the second leg.
Ahead of the match, perhaps there was a section of fans who were relieved to find out that the two teams were meeting in the quarterfinals this year, and would not meet in the final for the third consecutive time. The past two editions have seen Kedah play Selangor in the final matches, with Selangor winning the 2015 competition and Kedah taking home the cup in the following year.
Selangor boss Maniam Pachaiappan made little change to his first eleven, save for goalkeeper Khairulazhan Khalid, back in the line-up having recovered from his fever, and Indonesian star Andik Vermansah who did not start the match due to a knock that he could not shake off in time for the match. The remaining three foreign players were able to start, as were young players Adam Nor Azlin and Syahmi Safari.
Kedah head coach Nidzam Adzha Yusoff was able to field his best side; including all four of his foreign signings. Also in the starting line-up were Malaysia internationals Rizal Ghazali, Zainon, Khairul Helmi Johari, Fitri Omar, Baddrol Bakhtiar and Syazwan Zainon.
The Red Giants could have gone in front as early as the second minute, when Adam timed his jump well inside the Kedah penalty box to head a freekick from the right. But his header was a whisker too high.
But it was the visitors who opened the scoring, just six minutes later. Ken Ilso Larsen beat an offside trap to receive Rizal's through pass. He took a couple of steps, and slotted the ball past the grasp of Khairulazhan, who was slightly off-position. It was shocking how much space was given by Selangor to Kedah to build up the goal-scoring move from start to finish.
The match took a physical turn afterwards, with Razman Roslan and Amirul Hisyam Awang Kechik shown the yellow card within a minute of each other in the 13th minute.
In the 15th minute, Larsen doubled the Red Eagles' lead. A weak clearance by Ugo Ukah fell to Syazwan inside the Selangor box, and Syazwan's attempted follow-up shot was intercepted by Larsen who stabbed it in.
In the 27th minute Larsen could have found his hattrick after beating another offside trap, but this time Khairulazhan got a finger to the try, his first touch of the ball in the match.
Afterwards Kedah took their foot off the gas, simply deciding to hold the hosts at the halfway line. That could have backfired for them, as evergreen forward Amri Yahyah three times came close to finding the back of the net.
10 minutes from the halftime whistle, Amri forced two outstanding saves from goalkeeper Ifwat Akmal Che Kassim on two separate occassions, trying from outside the box. Minutes later, his glancing header missed the far post by milimeters.
The first half ended 2-0 to Kedah.
But Kedah maintained their momentum at the start of the second half, and were punished in the 53rd minute. A cross from the right by Syahmi eluded Ifwat's grasp and found Rufino Segovia at the far post, who nodded the ball in and pulled one back for the hosts. Replays showed that the Spaniard was offside when the cross was delivered, but the linesman did not spot that.
After the goal, Maniam brought Andik on for midfielder Saiful Ridzuwan Selamat.
In the 64th minute Rufino could have given the equaliser, but this time he failed to connect with another cross by Syahmi from the right.
They would again be punished for the misses. A cross from the right by Liridon Krasniqi in the 68th minute found Syazwan at the far post, who scored with a first-time finish.
But that would not be the end of the tie. Selangor and Rufino finally found their second goal just two minutes later. A short cross from the left by Andik was headed in by the forward at the far post.
Instead of trying to push for the equaliser, Selangor players instead allowed themselves to get drawn in needless quarrels. In the space of three minutes, Ukah and Amri found themselves booked, as did Kedah's Larsen and Sandro.
That period killed their momentum, and although they pushed on for the equaliser in the final five minutes, the visitors did just enough to hold on for the win.
Although many may criticise Nidzam's charges for letting their opponents claw their way back into the match, it is hard not to get the feeling they were simply saving their energy to kill the game in the second leg next weekend, at home the Darul Aman Stadium.
Selangor: Khairulazhan (GK), Razman (C), Ukah, Adam (Namathevan 79'), Syahmi, Saiful (56'), Amri, Kannan (Raimi 70'), Rufino, Doe, Veenod.
Kedah: Ifwat (GK), Rizal, Helmi (C), Anderson, Fitri, (Ariff 70') Baddrol (Akram 79'), Amirul, Krasniqi, Syazwan (Syawal 79'), Sandro, Larsen.