JDT desperate for Malaysia Cup glory as Kedah eye third straight final
The 91st edition of the Malaysia Cup begins on Tuesday, with the lustre of Asia's longest-running national cup competition as bright as ever, despite next month's Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur.
The 16 teams who will appear in the 2017 edition should be fresh after an extended break over Ramadan. But over the next few weeks, the games will come thick and fast, with the Malaysia Super League (MSL) running simultaneously.
Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT), Selangor, Kedah and Pahang are touted as the favourites, but watch out for the underdog spirit of Felda United, Perak and Negeri Sembilan, who can upset the form book.
Pahang, T-Team, Negeri Sembilan, PKNP FC
Dollah's Pahang will surely eye top spot in this group to reinforce their reputation as Cup masters. But while they have the firepower for a strong run, the Elephants will be also maintaining their interest in the MSL chase.
After their gallant performances in 2017, Asri Ninggal's Negeri Sembilan will also be confident of reigning supreme in Group A. This year, Paroi Stadium has been transformed into a fortress, thanks to the sizzling football the Jangs have dished out to top the second-tier Premier League.
Add that to their FA Cup semifinal run, and the Seremban-based side are good bets to join Pahang in the knockout stage.
T-Team will not pose much of a threat, while PKNP FC may omit their best players in preference of chasing promotion to the MSL.
Perak, PKNS FC, Felda United, Kuala Lumpur
Group B is also hard to call, with all four teams more than capable.
Perak were impressive in the MSL on Saturday, with new additions Gilmar and Leandro Dos Santos shining in their debuts against Kedah. Mehmet Durakovic, who took over as manager from the late Karl Heinz-Weigang in February, will be hoping for another run like 2015 when he helped Selangor win their 33rd Malaysia Cup title.
Felda United are also rejuvenated, with a new strikers in Ifedayo Olusegun and the returning Thiago Augusto, who both scored in Saturday's 2-1 win against Pahang in the MSL. B. Satiananthan could also introduce youngsters in this competition, just like he did in the AFC Cup group stages.
But PKNS and Kuala Lumpur should not be discounted. The Red Ants can be more than a handful on their day, proving their crededentials with an FA Cup final appearance last year.
Kuala Lumpur, joint leaders in the Premier League, are another dark horse after winning their last six matches in a row.
Kedah, Kelantan, Melaka United, UiTM FC
Having already clinched the FA Cup this season, defending Malaysia Cup champions Kedah will be eager to add more silverware from a group they surely would be confident of topping.
The northern state side are the only MSL team who did not make a single change in the mid-season transfer window. That's a testament of their belief and philosophy to give their seasoned professionals and fledging youngsters equal game time.
With Kedah favourites to qualify for the last eight, it will be left to MSL strugglers Kelantan and Melaka United to battle it out to join them.
The Red Warriors are still plagued by off-field troubles. They have still yet to confirm their participation in the next year's domestic competitions, due to a backlog of salaries, owed to past and present players.
Melaka would also certainly put MSL survival ahead of Malaysia Cup glory after dropping into to the relegation zone.
With these different scenarios, second-tier UiTM would fancy their chances of causing a shock to sneak into the next round.
JDT, Selangor, Sarawak, Terengganu
With a new coach in Portugal's Ulisses Morais, and the addition of naturalised midfielder Natxo Insa and a top striker in Egypt's Mohammed Ghaddar, JDT have no reason not to chase glory in the only competition that has eluded them so far.
The Crown Prince of Johor, JDT's owner who is also know as TMJ, downplayed the Malaysia Cup in recent seasons because it did not offer the winners a spot in the following year's AFC Cup.
But after seeing his side dumped out of the FA Cup and AFC Cup in the space of just over a month, TMJ will demand that this trophy is displayed in their burgeoning cabinet come October.
With a new coach who has a point to prove and added playing depth -- not to mention a nine-point lead in the MSL -- JDT's mission will be to dominate this Malaysia Cup.
Selangor's love affair with the Malaysia Cup hasn't faded. Indonesian winger Andik Vermansyah described "a winning feeling" Selangor's players enjoy in the competition, having appeared in the last two finals, lifting the trophy in 2015.
Head coach P. Maniam has done well in the MSL, despite limited resources, and a deep Malaysia Cup run would boost his reputation.
Sarawak and Terengganu, barring any major upsets, are only in Group D to make up the numbers.
Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.