BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The Malaysia Cup action returns this year with a slightly different format. Unlike the previous editions, this year's competition will run concurrently with the Super League (MSL) and Premier League, which means the top teams in the two leagues may not necessarily be the favourites in the cup this year.
The decision was made at the start of the season by Football Malaysia LLP (FMLLP), to ensure that all professional Malaysian clubs get to compete for the whole length of the football season. This is in contrast to the previous years when teams which failed to qualify for the cup would be without competitive football at the end of the season for at least one month longer, as compared to teams that made the cut.
Previously, Malaysian Cup was held after other competitions in the season have ended, which means teams that qualified could devote their attention and focus solely on trying to win this competition.
Now, apart from the clubs involved in the title race in the Super League and the Premier League, and the fight for the remaining AFC Cup slot, there are also Malaysian Cup teams that are battling relegation at the same time.
At the top of the MSL, apart from Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) and Felda United's two-horse race for the league title, Selangor in third will still want to keep the chase for at least the second place, which will give them the remaining AFC Cup spot if the Southern Tigers, which have already secured their place in the competition through their FA Cup title win earlier this year, emerge as league winners.
JDT owner Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim meanwhile have outright stated that the cup is not their target, as the title does not award a place in any continental competitions. Their Malaysia Cup group opener match against Premier League side PKNS FC at home ended in a 2-2 draw.
Near the bottom, Pahang are still trying to leave the relegation zone, with Sarawak and PDRM above them also threatened by the drop.
Meanwhile, all five Premier League teams that are competing in the cup; Melaka United, JDT II, Negeri Sembilan, KL and PKNS, are also locked in a five-team battle for (as of matchday 12) the league title or promotion to the first division.
KL head coach Ismail Zakaria even stated after their 1-0 Malaysia Cup group opener defeat to Selangor on Tuesday, that their focus was on their top-of-the-table clash against Melaka on Saturday at home.
Kuala Lumpur head coach Ismail Zakaria after the Selangor-KL Malaysia Cup match on June 12. Photo from TV Selangor YouTube
Let's be honest, a spot in the top division, a place in Asian competitions, league titles, or league survival are always going to trump a cup that only awards the winners a cash prize and some reputation, at least to teams that aim to be competitive.
With that in mind, three Malaysia Cup teams (as of league matchday 12) look to be in the sweet spot that will probably allow them to focus a bit more of their resources on winning the Malaysia Cup. They are MSL's T-Team (fourth), Kedah (fifth) and Terengganu (sixth), all with 16 points, a little too far behind for the league title chase or the jostle for the remaining AFC Cup spot, but still comfortably far ahead of the relegation zone.
However, Terengganu are currently facing a meltdown in the league and perhaps are not in any shape to go for glory, which leaves T-Team, a club side which have never lifted a top-tier title, and last year's finalists and four-time winners Kedah with a shot at winning the cup.
Maybe we will see a non-favourite side emerge as champions in this year's edition, or maybe will have the second club side winners, after MPPJ FC in 2003.
But more importantly, with most of the competing clubs now forced to chose between league title, AFC slot, survival or promotion, and the Malaysia Cup title, and with some clubs having already decided that the cup is not their primary objective, will this end the relevance of the competition, now in its 95th year, to Malaysian football?
After all, the more forward thinking football practitioners and fans in the country have pointed the lack of a place in continental competitions awarded to Malaysia Cup winners; the mark of a good, competitive top-level domestic tournament.