5 lessons from the Malaysia Cup final

What was witnessed at the Bukit Jalil Stadium on Saturday, was a true mark of what Malaysian football is capable of. Fans were jam-packed into their seats even two hours prior to kick off and the atmosphere would have given any other crowd across the globe, an absolute run for their money. Despite the existence of the Super League, and the FA Cup, everyone in Malaysia knew that this was the pinnacle of local football; the Malaysia Cup final. And it got the magic it deserved on the pitch as well, as Pahang battled through a resilient Johor DT side, to triumph on penalties and seize an unprecedented double. But despite a momentous occasion that deserved to be celebrated, there are several lessons to analyze and learn from the match. Here are 5 things we learned from the Malaysia Cup final:


1. Dollah Salleh has serious defensive issues to deal with


Never mind the fact that Dickson Nwakaeme was always going to be a handful to deal with. But the manner in which Johor’s defence was dismantled on Saturday night presented a massive cause for concern, because 3 of their 4 defenders are regular starters for the national team. Asraruddin was caught out of position on numerous occasions by Azamuddin Akil, while the Fadhli Shas also struggled to deal with through ball coming in from Azidan Saruddin all night long. Mahali on the other hand, was systematically ripped apart by the Gopinathan’s pace. Dollah Salleh was present at the stadium, and I don’t it was a match that he would have appreciated as much as we did. With the AFF Suzuki Cup set to determine his prolonged fate as the national team head coach, he has serious defensive issues to manoeuver past.


2. Norshahrul needs to hit the reset button on his career


It was so apt that when Norshahrul stepped up to convert his spot kick during the game, the Astro Arena commentator claimed that he did not trust the ex-Kelantan forward. True enough, his penalty was saved by Khairul Azhan, which eventually allowed Hafiz Kamal to slot home and fire Pahang to a double. But the point is this, Norshahrul is no longer the forward that was once feared by everyone within the country as well as within the region. This major shift in form is a bit delicate to deal with, as confidence seems to also be a niggling issue; it’s so obvious in his body language. Rumours are claiming that he will remain with the Southern Tigers next season, but perhaps the time is right for him to move away and start afresh. With Lucho and Jorge Diaz ahead of him in the pecking order, he’ll probably struggle for game time and this niggling form will never evade him. To me, it’s either he makes the paradigm shift now, or risk watching his career fade away.


3. Fitness is still Malaysian football’s ‘Achilles heel’


Malaysian football seems to sort of live in a paradigm of its own at times, where football matches perhaps last for only 70 minutes. The final started off at an electrifying pace, with both sides pushing on the offensive. It was end-to-end stuff, absolutely brilliant. But as the game progressed into the last 20-25 minutes, you could almost see the tempo going on downward spiral, as passes became sloppy, possession was lost by both sides way too easily, and shots were unleashed for the sake of improving statistics. The irony is, this isn’t a surprise. Almost all Super League matches observe the same pattern; our local players (with the exception of a few highly fit individuals) tend to run out of steam in the last hurdle, which more often than not, explains our national team’s tendency to falter late on in international fixtures.


4. Local forwards need to step up


Every single goal that was scored yesterday, came via a foreigner; Dickson Nwakaeme, Lucho Figueroa and Jorge Diaz. They were all playing at the behest of local strikers who were warming the bench. Safee Sali and Norshahrul, the famous Malaysian pair, who were once the poster boys of local football when we clinched the Suzuki Cup in 2010, were both placed in the substitute bench for the final; as Bojan opted for start with Figueroa and Diaz. Similarly on the other side, Dickson and Matias Conti were given starting 11 positions, at the expense of local forwards like Fauzi Roslan. Well, don’t tell me this is why we need to ban or place a smaller cap on foreign players, because the introduction of quality foreign players was supposed to increase the quality of the league. And it certainly does. The problem inherently lies with local forwards themselves, who are not up to the standard of these foreigners. If they don’t step up anytime soon, then expect our national team to be starved off quality finishing on the final third.


5. Gopinathan can be Malaysia’s wildcard at the Suzuki Cup


Now this is where we get to the exciting bit. After four depressing lessons from the final, there’s one ultimate lesson that seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel. Gopinathan, for what’s worth, was absolutely stunning in the first half against Johor DT last night. Not that he didn’t do much in the second, but his performance during the first 45 minutes, ripped the Southern Tigers apart on so many occasions. The thing about Gopi is that he’s a bit of a one-trick pony, and the threat he brings can be nullified by good opposition teams. But on his day, few defenders in the country can stop him, certainly not Mahali Jasuli, as we witnessed yesterday. If ever there was a doubt as to whether Gopi should be in the national team squad for the Suzuki Cup, those doubts would have been answered yesterday. It’s more like a no brainer now. And Dollah has worked with him before and knows Gopi’s strengths as a flanker. If those strengths can be utilized to perfection, then this Kuantan-born lad could be Malaysia’s wildcard at the Suzuki Cup.


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