FOOTBALL is not an exact science. Sometimes a plan concocted by even the most meticulous coaches fail to deliver the desired outcome. Sometimes a miracle happens and a less heralded team win a final.
But ask the average fan of Malaysian football, and they would agree that Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) are the runaway favourites to lift the Malaysia Cup on Friday (8 December), with Terengganu expected to make the trip back home to the East Coast empty-handed.
But two individuals in Terengganu’s Hall of Fame will feel otherwise ahead of the 97th edition of the final.
Irfan Bakti Abu Salim, the last coach to have taken Terengganu to the Cup final in 2018, believes the Turtles stand a chance of upsetting the form book. Hairuddin Omar, the star of Terengganu’s forward line that won the Cup in 2001, also believes that anything can happen in a football match until the final whistle is blown.
For Irfan, the final is a game of psychological, physical and tactical warfare that favours JDT on paper.
“Everyone expects JDT to dominate proceedings, impose their game and play with a high line. Playing against them requires a lot of work. You need to disrupt their rhythm and slow down the tempo,” he said.
Underdogs need to work on mental strength
With Irfan at the helm, Terengganu last advanced to the Malaysia Cup final five years ago when the Turtles lost 4-1 on penalties after Perak bounced back from a poor first half to notch a 3-3 draw in regulation time.
While Mehmet Durakovic lifted his second Malaysia Cup title as coach, Irfan was left to rue his second final defeat in a match best remembered for referee Suresh Jayaraman’s poor performance.
Irfan, who retired from football last season after a 25-year coaching stint in the top flight, had an impressive record of winning titles in the Premier League One (2001), FA Cup (2002 and 2011) and the Charity Shield (2003 and 2008) with several teams. The Malaysia Cup title eluded him despite featuring in two finals – in 2011 and 2018 - but Irfan had the pleasure of knocking JDT out from the Malaysia Cup in the past.
“Working with teams considered the underdogs, it boils down to the mental aspects of the game,” he said. “Days before the game, we trained with players receiving pass in tight areas as we practised against high pressure to develop the skill sets that allowed the players to evade the pressure."
The former No.2 to the likes of Claude le Roy and Wan Jamak Wan Hassan also believes Terengganu will need to break the JDT lines with a pass to a player who appears to have more time and space to think and execute than others on the field.
The player, Irfan believes, is Nurillo Tukhtasinov of Uzbekistan who is expected to combine with Bahrain’s Habib Haroon to supply the ammunition to Ivan Mamut as the No.9 for Terengganu. Mamut, with eight goals to his name in the competition, will be aided by flankers Sony Norde on the left and Norhakim Hassan on the right, with youngster Engku Muhammad Nur Syakir Engku Yacob slightly behind the Croatian.
“Nurillo can change the point of attack or create an attacking play with his left foot,” said Irfan.
Recalling Terengganu's previous triumph in 2001
If Irfan speaks tactics, Hairuddin draws parallel between this year’s final and the last one in which Terengganu emerged victorious.
The former Malaysian No.9 recalled the 2001 final, where he was bestowed the Man of the Match award after they beat Perak 2-1 at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil.
Perak started off as favourites before a capacity crowd 90,000, due to the presence of Khalid Jamlus, Malaysian skipper Ahmad Shahrul Azhar Sofian, playmaker Azrul Amri Burhan and attacker Indra Putra Mahayuddin But a penalty from Rosdi Talib and Sapian Wahid’s winning goal ensured Terengganu a place in the annals of Malaysian football.
“The odds favoured Perak then,” recalled Hairuddin. “They were the more experienced side and had big names in the line-up. Yet we managed to win before a capacity crowd.”
In sharing tips ahead of the final, Hairuddin - who is now coach of the Terengganu back-up team - said, “The Terengganu team will enter the field with nothing to lose. Just enjoy the game. Remember that Kuala Lumpur City upset JDT in the 2021 final.”
Terengganu manager Tomislav Steinbruckner will rely on an all-local defensive rearguard comprising right back Muhammad Azam Azmi Murad, centre-backs Muhammad Safwan Mazlan and Mohamad Shahrul Nizam Ros Hasni, and either Arif Fadzilah Abu Bakar or Ubaidullah Shamsul Fazili at left back to put a tight leash on Arif Aiman Mohd Hanapi. Suhaimi Hussin is expected to man the posts ahead of Rahadiazli Rahalim.
JDT already with 3 Cups in the bag
With three Cups already in the bag - the Charity Shield, the FA Cup and the Super League title – JDT looks forward to a massive celebration next week as they will officially be installed as league champions for the 10th time.
Another win on Friday will be the perfect ending to a mixed bag of memories for JDT. As opposed to the all-local talent forming the backbone of Terengganu's defence, JDT is expected to fire on all cylinders using foreign experts Heberty Fernandes, Bergson da Silva - who has a century of goals for the team - and Fernando Forestieri.
With Aiman on the right wing and naturalised Malaysian Endrick dos Santos, Afiq Fazail and Nathaniel Shio expected to stoke the engine room, JDT will not be short of attacking ideas. In defence, former Swansea defender Jordi Amat, Matt Davies and Oscar Arribas will provide a wall for keeper Ahmad Syihan Hazmi.
Terengganu will be hard-pressed to cause an upset, even if Steinbruckner is prepared to drag JDT to the shootout.
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