KOTA KINABALU: It will be a battle of two ‘Hawks’ when Sabah kick off their Malaysia Cup campaign away to Kuala Lumpur tonight.
While the host team have been known as the City Hawks for more than a decade, Sabah on the other hand have opted to switch their nickname from the Rhinos, as they are fondly known in the past, to Sabahawks starting from this season.
And if that is anything to go by, then tonight’s clash will be just like the case of David versus Goliath.
In a sense yes, it can be said that way, as Kuala Lumpur are from the Super League while Sabah are from the lower division – the Premier League.
Even Sabah coach and manager Gary Phillips knows what lies ahead for his side, and he is not helped by problems cropping up in the team.
Although they played some competitive friendly matches during their short tour to Kuala Lumpur late last month against Selangor, KL Plus and Selangor PKNS, which he was happy with the outcome of the trip, the squad are lacking in fitness.
Spells of injuries and fever have been the main factors contributing to these problems. To make matters worse, among those are first team players, although almost all of them made the trip to the national capital for the clash at the Kuala Lumpur Football Stadium in Cheras.
For this reason, Gary is likely to opt for a ‘cautious approach’ as he tries to settle for at least a draw.
“We haven’t had a complete training session … we also have a couple of injuries … Julamri (Muhammad) and Henry (Parsi).
“Julamri hasn’t trained. I think he’s had one session since KL and he only played against KL and after playing for 15 minutes, he picked up a little strain on his hip … so he’s had no game time and he’s had no training time and he’s generally a first 11 player so that’s a concern,” said Gary, when met at the airport prior to their departure yesterday.
Gary said Henry picked up an injury on his right knee and that he could be out for 3-4 weeks “and that lessens our depth defensively and as I say there have been at least a dozen players, sometimes four or five at a time that have not been at training because of fever and they’ve been out not just for one day. I’m talking about five or six days where they’ve not been at training.”
“Since we came back from KL we’ve only had maybe five training sessions and then we had the three-day break for Hari Raya so some players have not had a training session since we came back from KL.
“So our preparations have not been as I’d hoped for, but I was quite happy with our performances in KL but since coming back from KL, with the situation of the virus going around the team because once one person has it everyone has it, it’s a concern.
“Having said that with the exception of Julamri who I mentioned, everyone had at least 90 minutes in KL but that was two weeks ago. So I’m hoping that on the back of what our combination play and our understanding as individuals and selectively as a team, what we achieved last year is still in our mind.
“The only real concern is the fatigue factor … of course we’ve been sick, out of the 12 probably 80 per cent of those have been the first team. So the concern is whether we can get through 90 minutes and then of course we have to get back up again against the third best team in the Super League, Terengganu on Friday and then again on Monday, so fatigue is going to be a major issue.
“And I think that any team at this stage, after Hari Raya have to buck up after fasting, so it’s not an ideal situation but one that we’re obviously going to have to deal with.
“We don’t have a lot of depth so it’s going to be, the team that have the most depth that is going to be successful in this competition. The first three games are crucial. It’s here and now, so we have to deal with the situation.
“But I’m sure the players are excited about the opportunity of playing in the Malaysia Cup particularly on the back of finishing second in the Premier League and having achieved our objective of getting the promotion … so we’ll do the best we can. I’m sure the players are confident but I just hope that their energy levels are enough to get us through the 90 minutes.
“Obviously, you want to go away there, trying to get a result but it’s difficult as I said.
“This is such a big game because if we can get a result even if we don’t lose, we know that KL have got to come to Sabah and we know that we will be in a better position when they come back because hopefully by then we would have a fit squad and some games under our belts and it’s a home game.
“It’s really important that we don’t lose, even a one nil loss as long as we keep things to a minimum but we’re not going there to lose.
“How we are set up structurally, our organisation would be set around not losing so you can probably read between the lines how I might play. It’s a case of just surviving and if we can pinch something it would be magnificent but it would certainly be a very cautious approach for the first game.
“We need to be careful and respectful of playing a team that finished mid-table in the Super League. They’re a good side. I saw them on TV a couple of nights ago when they beat Selangor 3-1 so they’re a good side, they can play, they’re quick, they’re big, they’re mobile so we need to minimise the space and give ourselves every opportunity to limit attacking options for them.
On his line-up, Gary said: “There won’t be any major changes or any shock to the starting 11 or 12 but how we play might be a little bit different. So I need to try to come up with a formula that’s going to reduce their running.
“It’s not about having a dominant game in possession where you have 60/40. I’m happy to have 20 per cent of possession and concede 80 per cent but it’s where we have that possession is the key and how it reduces our running is going to have an effect on the players.
“And we’re going there not to lose … my main strategy.
Gary has named 19 players for the trip including the three on-loan players from Police (Mohd Afif Amiruddin) and Johor (Redzuan Mohd Radzy and Ismail Suboh).
The rest are Azizon Abdul Kadir, Mohd Salawi Jasad, Gasili Pengalot, Mohd Farid Ideris, Leopold Alfonso Otong, Radzi Mohd Hussin, Mafry Balang, Mohd Reithuddin Embran, Vun Ket Ming @ Billyton, Julamri Muhammad, Rosdin Wasli, Madzalan Emoi, Mohd Farid Saibun, Zainizam Marjan, Shahrul Azhar Ture and Razlan Oto.