KOTA KINABALU: Sabah seem to have the upper hand over their rivals, at least on paper, in their battle for Premier League supremacy which now looks more like a three-horse race.
They are currently in third and are two points behind League leaders Felda United while second placed Selangor PKNS are a point ahead with Gary Phillips’ boys playing a match less than both their rivals.
Sabah will likely be in pole position on Friday if they can register a victory over Johor MP Muar in a postponed tie as the rest of the Premier League will not taste action on that day.
But even if they win, it is likely to be a brief stay at the top of the standings for the Borneo outfit. This is due to the Kaamatan Festival celebration on May 31 where they requested their home tie against Borneo rival Sarawak, which was initially supposed to be played on the day, to be postponed to July 9, while the rest of the teams will take to the field.
But Sabah still have a slight edge over both Felda and PKNS because by then both these clubs will have played more games than Gary’s outfit.
On May 31, Felda United take on bottom of the table Shahzan Muda, whom Sabah thrashed 4-0 on Monday, while Selangor PKNS face Police. Both sides are expected to walk home with maximum points.
Felda remain at the top of the standings on 40 points but saw their three points lead over Selangor PKNS and four points lead over Sabah drastically trimmed to one and two points respectively, after the one-all draw by Police on Monday.
On the other hand, Selangor PKNS stamped their authority over KL Pos Malaysia with a 4-1 win while Sabah notched a comfortable victory over Shahzan Muda.
But what makes Sabah firm favourites for the Premier League crown is not just because of the advantage of a game in hand, but due to whom they will face in their remaining matches.
Felda United and Selangor PKNS will be facing stiff opposition while Sabah on the other hand have relatively easy opponents.
After the Shahzan Muda game on May 31, Felda take on Selangor PKNS followed by the tie against Harimau Muda. They will conclude their season by taking on Armed Forces who have an outside chance of claiming the crown. They are currently in fourth on 32 points.
As for Selangor PKNS, after the date with Police and Felda United, Shahzan Muda will be next before concluding their fixture by taking on Harimau Muda.
Sabah on the other hand take on Johor MP Muar, Sarawak, Penang USM FC, Melaka and KL Pos Malaysia.
Sabah coach and manager Gary Phillips is well aware of the position they are in now but is not willing to brag about their achievement so far.
He insisted that they need to take a cautious and ambitious approach in their remaining fixtures starting the date with lowly MP Muar.
On Monday night action, it was another night of joy for Gary as he saw his side register their 12th win of the season.
The victory stretched their unbeaten run in the League to 10 games of which nine ended in victories and one a scoreless draw with Felda United.
“I’m happy with the win, but it looked a little scrappy early in the game.
“But I’m a little disappointed with our energy level because we have set a high standard lately, but our performance was not up to it. We should have dominated the game especially against a team like Shahzan Muda, although we knew all along we were going to win the tie,” said Gary.
Bobby Gonzales struck the opener for the home side with a close range finish in the 13th minute.
“We need to be more comfortable and more confident with the ball playing against a side like Shahzan Muda, but after the break, it was a one-way traffic. And it could have been six or seven goals, but at the end of the day everyone was happy to have won the game.
“There is no injury and suspensions, so I got to be happy with the game,” he added.
Gary is now looking forward for the MP Muar clash where Alto Linus, who missed the Monday game, will likely spearhead the attack.
“Mafry needs to find his feet, but he is always a 100 per cent player and will surely get better.
“But we certainly missed Alto and it is good to have him back for the away trip. And it will be a headache for Justin (Ganai–assistant coach cum assistant manager) to select Mafry or Gasili for the MP Muar match,” Gary said jokingly.
Again, one player that impressed Gary was Zainizam Marjan, a former national striker, who was a class above.
“He knows what to do and that is a sign of an experienced player,” said Gary.
His backline, keeper Azizon Abdul Kadir, Julamri Muhammad, Rosdin Wasli, Mafry and skipper Md Reithuddin Ag Embran also received a pat on their back for a job well done in keeping a clean sheet.
“They have been working tirelessly in defence and what a job they did!”
The condition of the Likas Stadium field could have been a factor that denied Bobby Gonzales from scoring a hat-trick.
“In a game some time you have six or seven chances, and some time none. But I’m happy for him to score two goals,” said Gary.
Bobby scored his second in the 52 minute before Mohd Farid Ideris netted the third in the 67th minute.
Razlan Oto, who came in for Farid Ideris, sealed the team’s victory by lobbing the ball past the keeper in the 79th minute.