2012 Malaysia Super League Preview
The new season of the Malaysia Super League promises to be one of the most exciting ever, with defending champions Kelantan looking a strong chance to retain their title.
However, it won't be all smooth-sailing for Peter Butler's men as Terengganu look set to pose a strong challenge to the Red Warriors, while Kedah could spring a surprise along the way.
At the other end of the table, Felda United, Sabah and Kuala Lumpur could be in for a long season, while the introduction of Singapore-based outfit LIONSXII will add an element of intrigue this year.
Ahead of the season kick-off, ESPNSTAR.com takes a look at how each side could fare over the next six months.
Kelantan (Champions in 2011)
The Red Warriors are generally regarded as favourites for this season's title and it's easy to see why when you take a quick glance at the players at Butler's disposal.
In Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, Kelantan have the safest pair of hands in the country tending their goal, although he will have to do without the protection of the reliable Azizi Matt Rose, who picked up a ligament injury in the Charity Shield match against Negri Sembilan.
Up front, Malaysia international Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and Lebanese import Muhammed Ghaddar will be expected to get the goals for Kelantan, but 18-year-old Ghanaian Dennis Antwi could just be Butler's wild card in attack, after scoring an impressive ten goals in pre-season.
Kelantan will also be bolstered by the signings of former national stars Indra Putra Mahyuddin and Mohd Nor Farhan Muhammad. While both are a shadow of their former selves, they are still capable of the odd moment of brilliance, and will add much depth to Butler's squad.
Nonetheless, the Red Warriors will have to be wary of complacency, especially as most teams will be gunning for them. And having claimed their first Super League title last season, the demanding Kelantan fans will be desperate for their side to repeat the feats of Kedah and Selangor in recent season and go back to back.
Terengganu (Runners-up in 2011)
Terengganu came closest to pipping Kelantan to the title, finishing just three points behind the eventual champions, and again this season, they look the most likely to challenge for top honours.
The Turtles were impressive on all fronts last year, winning the FA Cup and finishing runners-up in the Malaysia Cup as well, and the fans will be hoping they can go one step further this season under new coach Mat Zan Mat Aris, who led the club to their first Malaysia Cup title back in 2001.
Plenty has been made of Terengganu's foreign imports Erison da Silva Santos Carnietto and Francis Doe: the former a skillful and hardworking Brazilian playmaker, the latter a complete striker who has been capped by Liberia.
However, their main threat will once again come from Ashaari Shamsuddin and Abdul Hadi Yahya, who won the last two Golden Boot Awards respectively. In addition to these two, Terengganu also have Abdul Manaf Mamat to call upon, and with such firepower, it is hard to see the Turtles faring poorer than a top-two finish.
Selangor (3rd in 2011)
One of the most successful sides in the land with a record 32 Malaya/Malaysia Cup titles to their name, Selangor will be looking to set the record straight this season after a disappointing 2011 campaign, where they finished third in the Super League and were knocked out of both cup competitions at the semi-final stage.
The biggest change for the Red Giants in 2012 comes in the managerial hot seat, with former Terengganu coach Irfan Bakti taking over from K. Devan, who departed last September .
On the pitch, 30-year-old captain Amri Yahyah remains Selangor's biggest threat in attack, while Safiq Rahim will look to pull the strings from midfield.
Young star Asraruddin Putra Omar looks set to marshal the backline despite his relative youth, although he will be aided by the signing of Lebanon international Ramez Dayoub, who will add steel and experience at the back.
However, Irfan's wildcard could just be winger Amirul Hadi Zainal. Having now established himself as a bona-fide Malaysia international, the 25-year-old looks set for a big year ahead.
Kedah (4th in 2011)
2011 was a year to forget for Kedah as they ended the campaign empty-handed, finishing fourth in the Super League after a poor start to the season. However, coach Wan Jamak Wan Hassan deserves plenty of credit after he took over in the middle of the campaign, and guided Hijau Kuning to a late climb up the table.
Still, an outburst after Kedah drew with Perak 1-1 in their final Malaysia Cup match last season saw Wan Jamak slapped with an eight-match ban by the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), meaning he will have to watch the Canaries' start to the season from the sidelines.
On the field, Kedah's starting eleven this season looks set to have a samba feel, after the club signed Brazilian duo Danilo Vivaldo and Daniel Baroni. The former stands at 1.87m and has been praised for his defensive solidarity, while the latter is expected to provide a creative spark in the middle of the park, something Kedah lacked last year.
But the biggest coup the club managed to pull off in the off-season was to retain the services of inspirational midfielder Baddrol Bakhtiar, who reportedly received several lucrative offers from Indonesia following his tournament-winning exploits for Malaysia at the SEA Games. Having been rewarded for his loyalty by being handed the Kedah captaincy, Baddrol has already spoken of his desire to return the Canaries to the top of Malaysian football.
Perak (6th in 2011)
Plenty of questions were raised when then-Perak coach Azraai Khor Abdullah chose Shahrulnizam Mustapa to replace star player Nelson San Martin when the Chilean left to join Bangkok Glass in 2009. However, the 30-year-old has gone on to become a vital cog in the Perak midfield, and ahead of the new season, Seladang's fortunes will largely be dependent on how much of an impact Shahrulnizam makes.
While not many believe Perak have the quality to be considered genuine title contenders, coach Norizan Bakar's team is oozing with experience, meaning it will be foolish to completely rule them out. Goalkeeper Nasil Nourdin and midfielder K. Nanthakumar are both former Malaysia internationals, while 34-year-old left-back Chan Wing Hoong continues to turn back the years with his energetic bursts down the wing.
However, Perak struggled for goals last season, displaying an unhealthy reliance on former Malaysia golden boy Akmal Rizal Rakhli, who scored nineteen goals in 43 caps for the national team. Norizan seems to have identified his attack as a problem area, and has wisely brought in reinforcements to lighten to burden on Akmal's ageing shoulders.
Failee Ghazali has been brought in on a permanent basis after scoring five goals in seven games for Perak on loan last season, while towering Serb Lazar Popovic is tipped to bully opposition defenders into submission. Perak's lack of options in attack could also mean 20-year-old Shafiq Jamal could be given a fair opportunity to impress.
For now, a top-five finish seems a realistic target for Seladang. But should Norizan's veterans continue to turn back the years, you never know what could happen.
Johor FC (7th last season)
Now firmly established as a Super League club after earning promotion in 2001, Johor FC will be hoping 2012 is the year the club takes the next step in their development and start to challenge for top honours.
And no expense has been spared in this pursuit, with Johor FC increasing their budget to RM6million, enticing former Negri Sembilan and Selangor boss K. Devan to the club in the process.
Having been given a free rein, Devan has set out to create his perfect team, booting out half the players at his disposal when he took over, including influential midfielder Rezal Zambery Yahya, who has left for Malaysian Armed Forces.
The 50-year-old has brought in Khaironnisam Sahabudin Hussain and Shafizan Hashim to bolster the Bees' backline, and considering they had the joint-fifth best defence last season, expect Johor FC to be watertight at the back in 2012.
Devan also looks set to field a new-look attack after signing Farid Ideris, Haris Safuan Kamal and Zamri Chin, although his most interesting signing has been promising goalkeeper Mohd Zamir Selamat, who joined from Harimau Muda A and looks set to replace Mohd Anis Faron as Johor FC's number one.
There is no doubt Devan has set the wheels in motion, and if the Bees can find a bit of consistency and continuity, 2012 could just be the year we witness the birth of a new Malaysian superpower.
Negri Sembilan (8th last season)
Negri Sembilan caused one of the upsets of 2011 when they beat hot favourites Terengganu 2-1 in the final of the Malaysia Cup, but the club has since been hit by the departure of five key players, who have all given up playing in the country's top flight in favour of lucrative offers.
Mohd Aidil Zafuan, Mohd Zaquan Adha, Farizal Harun, Hairuddin Omar and Irwan Fadzli Idrus have all joined ambitious Premier League side Malaysian Armed Forces, while Ahmad Fakri Saarani and Ahmad Aminuddin Shaharudin have joined Super League rivals Felda United.
However, Negri coach Azraai Khor Abdullah is hardly perturbed by the plethora of departures, and has full confidence his young charges will be able to hold their own against the competition's top sides.
One player who has remained at the Tuanku Abdul Rahman Stadium is 32-year-old Shukor Adan, who will be expected to spur on his youthful team-mates, especially when the going gets tough. Although the burden on Shukor could be significantly relieved by new signings Jean-Emmanuel Effa Owana, who hit two goals in Sunday's 2-1 Charity Shield win over Kelantan.
The 28-year-old Cameroonian was a handful for the Kelantan defenders all evening, and don't be surprised if he is amongst the top scorers of 2012.
T-Team (9th last season)
2011 proved a milestone year for T-Team as the Terengganu-based outfit made it to the semi-finals of the Malaysia Cup in only their second appearance. However, they had a less enjoyable experience in the league winning just nine matches, all they did finish comfortably above the relegation zone.
And while the Young Turtles have lost star duo Indra Putra and Mohd Nor Farhan to Kelantan, coach Yunus Alif remains upbeat ahead of the new season, and is expecting plenty from new signing Fadzli Saari, who plied his trade in Germany for SV Wehen back in 2001.
The arrivals of foreign players Bojan Petric and Zachariah Simukonda has also been hailed as a major coup for Yunus' side. Petric, who stands at 1.90m, is expected to add plenty of height in the T-Team defence, while Zambian striker Simukonda impressed in a three-year spell with Perlis from 2005 to 2007.
T-Team will also be able to push forward regularly safe in the knowledge they have former Malaysia number one Syamsuri Mustafa in goal, although he is likely to have plenty to do with a weak defence in front of him. Still, the Young Turtles look like they have enough in them to stave off relegation this season.
Sabah (10th last season)
Sabah coach Justin Ganai has already admitted staying in the Super League will not be an easy task for his side, who battled hard to a 10th-placed finish last season. Already, many believe 2012 will be another year of struggles for the SabaHawks, but those within the club are quietly optimistic they have what it takes to retain their top-flight status for another season at least.
Sabah struggled to find the back of the net last season, scoring just 24 goals in 26 matches, and Ganai is hoping his new signings will help address this pressing issue.
Bobby Gonzalez earned his place in Sabah folklore after his goals fired them to promotion in 2010, and after an impressive year with Sarawak, where he scored sixteen goals in 21 appearances, the diminutive forward has returned and is expected to play a key role this season.
He will not have it all to do on his own though, with plenty expected from Australian-born Brendan Gan, whose father hails from Negri Sembilan. The 23-year-old attacking midfielder spent four seasons with A-League side Sydney FC, and his signing has captured the imagination of the locals, with Gan even revealing his intention to play for Malaysia.
Another Australian import, Michael Baird, has experience playing in Romania's top flight with Universitatea Craiova, and is expected to lead the line alongside Gonzalez. Should the SabaHawks attack manage to get amongst the goals, it could go a long way to ensure their bid to remain in the Super League is realised.
Felda United (11th last season)
It was a baptism of fire for Felda United last season as they struggled to come to terms with the big time in their first taste of the Super League, after winning promotion in 2010.
However, finishing 11th seems to have done little to lessen expectations at the club, with the Felda management targeting a top-five finish and a cup win this season.
Seventeen players from last year's squad have been axed, while the Settlers have snapped up Malaysia internationals Ahmad Fakri and Yong Kuong Yong from Negri Sembilan and Kuala Lumpur respectively.
Both will add some much-needed quality to the Felda attack, but their most interesting signing has been midfielder Hardi Jaafar, a dead-ball specialist renowned for his long-range specials. Hardi, who has 29 Malaysia caps to his name, joins from Selangor and will bring a wealth of experience in the middle of the park.
And it will be goalkeeper Hamsani Ahmad who will lead to new-look Settlers side out in their first game against Sabah on January 10, after the 35-year-old was named the new Felda captain.
A long season awaits the Kuala Lumpur-based side, one in which they will do well to preserve their top-flight status.
Kuala Lumpur (12th last season)
It seems not too long ago that Kuala Lumpur reigned supreme in Malaysia, winning three consecutive Malaysia Cups from 1987 to 1989, as well as two Super League titles in 1986 and 1988.
However, their recent financial struggles have cost the City Boys, who have been widely tipped as prime candidates for the drop this season.
Coach Razip Ismail is aware of the monumental task he has ahead of him, but is hoping the signing for former Malaysia U-23 star Stanley Bernard will inspire his team to success this year. The 25-year-old began his career with the City Boys and was even included in the Malaysia squad that played a high-profile friendly against English giants Manchester United in 2009.
However, his once-promising career has hit a standstill in recent years, and he failed to score a single goal last season for Sabah. Now back at the club he began his career at, Bernard will be hoping some strong displays for Kuala Lumpur this year will help revive his stagnant career.
Nonetheless, the City Boys have one of the weakest squads in the Super League on paper, and were not helped by the off-season departures of goalkeeping duo Norazlan Razali and Remezey Che Ros to Selangor and PKNS respectively, leaving a gaping gap between the posts which Zahid Ahmad, Rozaimie Rohim and Amirul Abu Seman will all battle to fill this year.
Midfielders Nazrin Nawi and Norismaidham Ismail have also left for greener pastures, choosing to join Malaysia Cup champions Negri Sembilan, meaning it the City Boys are to avoid the drop this year, a couple of youngsters are going to have to step up and make a name for themselves.
PKNS FC (Newly-promoted, Premier League champions last season)
Unlike most newly-promoted sides, PKNS FC have virtually no financial woes to worry about, with coach Abdul Rahman Ibrahim given a reasonable budget to work with.
However, the Fire Ants soon found out their lack of history was a major factor in their inability to attract star players to move to the Petaling Jaya Stadium, with Abdul Rahman admitting most players were more keen on playing for the likes of Kelantan, Selangor and Terengganu.
Still, one player PKNS did managed to bring in was Frenchman Michael Nicoise, a 27-year-old with plenty of European experience. Abdul Rahman will be hoping the tricky striker will be able to forge a good understanding with former Selangor star Rudie Ramli.
At the back, Mohd Fadhil Hashim is looming as a key player for the Fire Ants, and his leadership in last season's promotion-winning campaign has not gone unnoticed, with the 28-year-old being handed the club captaincy.
However, with PKNS expected to field plenty of young faces, Fadhil, Rudie and Nicoise will be expected to shoulder much of the workload in 2012.
Sarawak (Newly-promoted, Premier League runners-up last season)
After a five-year absence, Sarawak are back amongst the big boys of Malaysian football, although coach Robert Alberts, in his second managerial stint at the club, has played down his young team's chances in the Super League.
And with his squad littered with youngsters and discarded veterans, Alberts will be hoping Cameroonian duo Guy Bwele and Kalle Sone play huge parts in the Crocs survival bid.
27-year-old Bwele is expected to add some much-needed experience in the backline, while 29-year-old Sone has been brought in to inject pace in a rather toothless Sarawak attack.
Local lad Benedict Martin returns to his home state after three years with Perak, and will be expected to provide a supply of chances for his strikers with his dead-ball skills, while the Crocs will heavily rely on Sani Anuar Kamsani to keep opposition strikers at bay.
Once regarded as one of the Malaysia's brightest goalkeeping prospects, the 28-year-old has failed to realise his full potential despite winning the Malaysia Cup and FA Cup with Negri Sembilan, with Alberts admitting Sani's experience could see him get the nod ahead of Aidil Mohammad and Saiful Amar Sudar.
LIONSXII (New entrant, replacing Harimau Muda A)
Seventeen years after Singapore abruptly withdrew from Malaysian football after winning the league and cup double in 1994, the city state will once again be represented in Malaysia's top flight after an agreement was reached between both countries' football associations.
But already there are plenty suggesting the LIONSXII are in for a big shock despite having a number of internationals to call upon, especially when they travel for away games and encounter the feral home crowds Malaysia is renowned for.
Singapore's former Malaysia Cup hero V. Sundramoorthy will manage a side littered with some of the country's best players, with captain Shahrik Ishak and combative midfielder Hariss Harun expected to play key roles for LIONSXII.
At the back, young star Safuwan Baharudin will be expected to cover for the error-prone Baihakki Khaizan, although Sundramoorthy will have to do without skillful left-back Shaiful Esah, who will miss the first month of the campaign after fracturing his left fibula.
Up front, former Singapore international Agu Casmir is expected the lead the line on his own, but should he miss through injury or suspension, it remains to be seen if youngsters Sufian Anuar and Khairul Nizam will be able to step up to the plate.