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MSL 2020 season preview: Sabah to survive top-tier return with help of retained local, core players

02:05 GMT 28/02/2020
Sabah, Malaysia Premier League, 09072019
Sabah were promoted to the Super League as the second tier champions, but are they good enough to survive their first top-tier campaign since 2011?

With the new Malaysia Super League season on the horizon, Goal will be bringing to you the complete guide to all 12 teams in the competition. Going through the changes in the respective squads to see where they could finish come the end of the season. Our next preview is on one of the three clubs to be promoted; Sabah.

How they fared in 2019

The change in Sabah's state government back in 2018 brought back a more-involved brand of state patronage into the team, after state Minister of Infrastructural Development Peter Anthony was also elected as team president. He introduced several unpopular cosmetic changes (they are no longer the Rhinos, but rather 'Tembadau' or Wilderbeests), but ultimately provided enough resources to head coach Jelius Ating to bolster his squad, allowing him to field a very competitive squad.

His charges started the season a little slowly, even crashing out early in the FA Cup to then third-tier side Kelantan United. But the defeat would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as it permitted them to focus solely on their Premier League campaign. From April 13 to July 17, Sabah recorded a run of 11 straight matches without a defeat. They sealed the league title, and promotion, with two rounds remaining, to return to the top tier for the first time since 2011.

Sabah's participation in the Super League this year also sees the return of an East Malaysian team to the top tier for the first time since Sarawak were relegated at the conclusion of the 2017 season.

What's new in the squad

New heights usually require changes, and unfortunately the first shake up in the squad involved the same man who took them to their league title. Jelius does not have the necessary licences to guide the team in the Super League, and had to vacate the head coach post he had been occupying since 2017, with untested Indonesian coach Kurniawan Dwi Yulianto taking over.

But the squad itself has undergone relatively little change, with most of the players from last year retained, and this is shown by the fact that only two of their foreign players were replaced, forward Hector Ramos and midfielder Petrus Shitembi coming in. Their ASEAN spot is filled by German-Thai forward Dennis Buschening.

Only two local big names were signed by them in the pre-season; former Terengganu FC goalkeeper Wan Azraie Wan Teh and ex-Pahang defender Zubir Azmi.

Who are the key players

The Sabah-born players on the squad should be expected to continue playing a major role on the team, especially when Jelius is still on the coaching staff, as Kurniawan's assistant coach. Rozaimie Rohim was the first choice custodian last season, but the arrival of Azraie should provide the Rhinos with a fight for the place in between the sticks in the starting eleven.

At 25 Rawilson Batuil is already a skipper, and he will be leading their defence alongside veteran defender Mafry Balang. Seasoned local boys Rawilson Batuil, Malaysia international Azzizan Nordin and Maxsius Musa will continue Sabah's fight at a higher level, with the help of the two foreigners retained from last season; forward Rodoljub Paunović and defender Park Tae-soo.

Where they will finish in 2020

So long as they are provided enough resources by the state, Sabah will avoid becoming a pushover newly-promoted side. Having a lot of locally-developed boys in the squad will help them survive their first season back in the top tier, as will retaining Jelius as a sort of guiding hands for the inexperienced Kurniawan. The Rhinos, or Tembadau, will be good enough to end the league in eighth place.

Also read our season previews on JDTKedahSelangor, PahangPerak and Melaka United.

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