Malaysia FA Cup | Bukit Jalil Stadium | Sat 23 May | 8.45pm
Cup final veterans vs first timers.
So everything comes down to this – a showpiece final at the majestic 90,000-seater Bukit Jalil Stadium to decide who picks up the first major piece of silverware in Malaysian football this year.
There’s one thing very un-Malaysian about this season’s FA Cup Final though – for the first time in the 26-year history of the competition, there’s a Singaporean team who have made it this far and it is the LionsXII who will be hoping to upset the odds.
This competition had proved to be a stumbling block for the developmental outfit since their inception in 2012, having not made it anywhere further than the quarter-finals. However history is set to be rewritten this term.
The LionsXII's run to the final saw them dispatch PB Melayu Kedah and KL SPA Putrajaya without much sweat, before cruising past Johor Darul Ta’zim II over 180 minutes in the quarter-finals.
The first real test came in the semi-finals against Terengganu FA, where they held a slender 2-1 lead going into the second leg at the newly-refurbished Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium. Khairul Amri twice gave them the lead on the night, but they were pegged back on both occasions through Paulo Rangel.
Norshahrul Idlan Talaha then scored to level the tie on aggregate before Nordin Alias nodded in what the Turtles thought would be the winning goal. However their celebrations were cut short by the linesman’s offside flag as the LionsXII hung on to progress via the away goals rule.
Surviving that battle of nerves in Kuala Terengganu should stand them in good stead for the final, where they are arguably underdogs against Kelantan FA, winners in 2012 and 2013.
It would not be an exaggeration to describe them as veterans of major cup finals. In the last seven years, they have reached eight finals and won four of them. Adding to their pair of FA Cups are Malaysia Cups in 2010 and 2012. But if there's some hope for their opponents, it's that they were also on the losing end in the 2009 and 2011 FA Cup finals, as well as the 2009 and 2013 Malaysia Cup finals.
While it has not been smooth-sailing for the Red Warriors in the league this season (languishing third-from-bottom after 10 games played), things are rather different when it comes to knockout competition.
Edging past Sarawak FA and Kuala Lumpur FA in the preliminary stages, they proceeded to overcome Sime Darby 4-1 over two legs in the quarter-finals. Next up was holders Pahang FA who proved to be a much tougher nut to crack than their previous three opponents.
Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, they levelled matters on aggregate briefly through Wan Zaharulnizam in the return leg in Kota Bahru but were then hit by a sucker punch by R Gopinathan in the second half.
Time seemed to be running out for Azraai Khor’s men, who now needed two goals to progress, but they simply refused to buckle. Nigerian forward Austin Amutu eventually proved to be the hero, as he took the game by the scruff of the neck with two brilliant individual strikes in the last 15 minutes to help his side progress 3-2 on aggregate.
A third FA Cup final appearance in four years also marks the remarkable turnaround of fortunes since the wily Azraai took over the coaching hot seat from George Boateng in late March. Along with the former, in came the likes of experienced centre-back Amirizdwan Taj Tajuddin, Brazilian forward Gilmar and Amutu, on loan from Nigerian outfit Warri Wolves.
The new additions seemed to have revitalized the squad; Amirizdwan have forged a good defensive screen with Jonathan McKain in front of goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, while Gilmar and Amutu have formed a fearsome three-pronged attack with Erwin Carrillo. The trio are responsible for half of their 20 goals in all competitions this season.
In addition, there are also the likes of local talents Badhri Razi, Wan Zaharulnizam and Wan Zack Haikal to contend with, so it looks like a long night for the LionsXII defence on Saturday night.
Just like in the past few games, there are no fresh injury concerns for the LionsXII going into this game (bar long-term injury victims Afiq Yunos and Samuel Benjamin).
Faris Ramli, Sahil Suhaimi, Christopher Van Huizen and Zakir Samsudin have been recalled after being away in Gotemba, Japan for centralised training with the Singapore Under-23s in preparation for the upcoming SEA Games. Faritz Hameed has also resumed training after recovering from injuries from a motorcycle accident.
The line-up for Saturday night looks to be pretty settled with Izwan Mahbud in goal, Zulfahmi Arifin and Madhu Mohana to continue their centre-back partnership, Hafiz Sujad at left back, Gabriel Quak and Faris Ramli on the wings, Safuwan Baharudin and Izzdin Shafiq in the middle of the park, Khairul Amri and Khairul Nizam to pair up in attack.
The only uncertainty should be at right-back where Nazrul Nazari, Raihan Rahman and Faritz are all vying for one slot.
Kelantan, on the other hand, have the luxury of a full team to pick from. There are no major injury worries for coach Azraai, with Amutu the only player recovering from a knock sustained in the first leg of the semi-final. The forward might not last a full game, but will definitely play a part at some point.
His two goals against Pahang in the second leg tell the tale. The LionsXII had better watch out for his impact if he comes off the bench.
Who else but him?
It is no secret that the goalscoring responsibilities fall heavily on Amri’s shoulders, with the 30-year-old hitting the net a total of five times in this superb Cup run. He showed his worth with a superbly-taken double against Terengganu last week and that should set him up nicely for this much-anticipated final.
Over the years, Amri has forged a reputation for being a ‘big-game ace’ – scoring in the 2004, 2007 and 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup finals which helped the Lions to regional glory each time. He will hope to come up with the goods against the tough Kelantan centre-back pairing of Amirizdwan and McKain.
Kelantan FA Player to Watch: Austin Amutu
If a game-changer is what you seek, look no further than Nigerian ace Austin Amutu. The 22-year-old has four goals in as many games since arriving in Kota Bharu just over a month ago, including the equalising and winning goals (on aggregate) against Pahang in the second leg of their semi-final.
Amutu combines searing pace with quick dribbling ability reminiscent of compatriot Dickson Nwakaeme, and Kelantan fans will be hoping that he’ll become as valuable as their former talisman. He may not play a full match in the final, but you wouldn’t bet against him making an impact.
- Darren Goon (@Box_to_Box)
On the losing end against Kelantan two years ago when he was in charge of Johor Darul Ta’zim, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad will have a second bite of the cherry against the very same opposition.
However to do so, he first have to get the better of one of the shrewdest operators in Malaysian football in Azraai Khor. The 62-year-old, who has over 20 years of coaching experience, is the only coach to win the Treble of the Malaysian Super League, FA Cup and Malaysia Cup in successive seasons in 2006/2007 and 2007/2008.
Things did not exactly work out for him at T-Team last year, where he tendered his resignation after being unsuccessful in his bid to keep the side in the top-flight. Thereafter, he took the opportunity to go to Brazil to upgrade his coaching skills and gain attachments with some of the leading football clubs in the country – all on his own expenses.
That was until Kelantan president Tan Sri Annuar Musa came calling with an offer which he could not refuse.
Facts and Figures
- Kelantan have the upper hand in terms of the head-to-head records between both teams – they have won six, while the LionsXII have only won once.
- The solitary win came in the 2013 league season where a late Shahfiq Ghani goal separated both sides at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
- In terms of goalscoring, Kelantan are equally effective in each half (with 10 apiece in the first half and the second half in all competitions), while the LionsXII are slightly more clinical in the second half (13 goals in the first half as compared to 16 goals in the second half in all competitions).
- Cup finals have traditionally been tight affairs – in the previous nine years, five of them have been decided by a one-goal margin while the other four went down the penalties.
- The last time a team won by two goals or more was in the 2005 final where Selangor FA overcame Perak FA 4-2.
FFT.com Editor Zee Ko: Putting bias aside, the LionsXII will be fired up to prove their critics wrong. Kelantan to take an early lead but the LionsXII to come roaring back for a historic first title. 1-2.
Gary Koh: The LionsXII will have to contend with an overwhelmingly pro-Kelantan crowd but I think the Singaporeans will put in a backs-to-the-wall performance and win 1-2 in extra time after the Red Warriors tire.
Kenneth Tan: As mentioned, a Cup final is akin to a chess game so do not bet on a high-scoring game. Kelantan are the favourites, but there is something about this year’s LionsXII squad that makes them thrive under pressure. I fancy them to nick it 0-1.
Darren Goon: I don't believe in fairytales. I'm backing Kelantan to win 3-2.
Main Photo: Football Association of Singapore