Southeast Asia Malaysia

Panthers on the Cusp of Continental Dreamland

Coming into the 2021 Liga Super Malaysia season, newly-promoted Penang FC only had one goal in mind – survival. With the glory days of the late 90s and early 2000s well behind them, the Panthers were a side rife with inconsistencies. Their last Liga Super stint lasted just two seasons, with a 10th placed finish in 2016 and a relegation in 2017 thanks to their 12th placed finish, before a period of financial turmoil ensued that saw Penang finishing in the lower half of the Liga Premier Malaysia table. However, in 2019 the Panthers picked themselves up, winning the 2nd tier title in 2020, before unexpectedly challenging for an AFC Cup ticket in 2021.

While Johor Darul Ta’zim cantered their way to the 2021 Liga Super title as expected, the race for silver medal and a ticket to the 2022 AFC Cup group stages is now down to the wire. Usual suspects in Kedah Darul Aman and Terengganu FC are still well in the running, however stalwarts from seasons’ past in Sri Pahang FC and Perak FC are faltering with the latter even getting themselves relegated for the first time in history.

Unexpectedly, Penang have nestled themselves quite nicely in the Liga Super’s top half. The Panthers are set to finish in their highest placing ever since a 4th placed finish all the way back in 2002, and they did that with a squad whose backbone was present in their 2020 Liga Premier Malaysia win, with a few shrewd enhancements, of course.

Loan signings Ryuji Utomo and Quentin Cheng Jiun Ho proved to be formidable presences at the back, safeguarding Samuel Somerville in the Penang goal alongside new signing Azwan Aripin. Fellow new signings Danial Ashraf and David Rowley has been decent in the midfield, while Tajikistan international Sheriddin Boboev added a more lethal edge to Penang’s offense.

However, most of Penang’s core players came from that very same team that won the Malaysian second-tier title in 2020 – goalkeeper Somerville, Rafael Vitor and Latiff Suhaimi in defense, Endrick, Khairu Azrin, Amer Azahar and Al-Hafiz Harun in the midfield, and last but not least, Casagrande up front.

Throw in into the mix academy graduate Azmeer Aris, who’s embarking in his first season as a pro in 2021, and you’ll get a squad that has been punching well above their weight this season.

It is also worth noting that Al-Hafiz and Casagrande were also present when Penang started their renaissance in 2019, which saw Dr. Amar Pritpal Abdullah taking control of the Penang Football Association from outgoing president Datuk Seri Ho Kwee Cheng.

And gelling those men together was Tomas Trucha, a Czech head coach who was threatened out of his previous job with AFC Leopards in Kenya only to bounce back in emphatic fashion with Penang.

The Panthers started the 2021 season emphatically, losing only one of their first 11 matches. That sole defeat came away at JDT, with Penang going down 2-0 after forcing the Southern Tigers to work their socks off.

Two defeats at the hands of Kuala Lumpur City and JDT derailed Penang’s red-hot form coming into the mid-season break and despite the Panthers suffering two more heavy losses at the hands of regional rivals Kedah and Selangor FC, Penang won six of their eight games after the restart to keep themselves well and truly alive in the hunt for an AFC Cup ticket.

Penang’s 2-1 win away at Sri Pahang on September 5th, coupled with Kedah’s 3-3 draw with already-relegated UiTM FC only three days afterwards sets up an exciting final day of the Liga Super season this weekend.

With the league title and relegation places already sealed up, all eyes are on the race for this season’s runners-up spot. 2nd placed Kedah will host a Melaka United side with nothing left to play but pride, while 3rd placed Penang and 4th placed Terengganu will have a do-or-die clash at the City Stadium in George Town. A win for either team coupled with a Kedah slip-up would ensure them a ticket to next year’s AFC Cup.

And even if Penang fail to finish in 2nd place at the end of the season, should they finish 3rd the Panthers could still qualify into the AFC Cup for the first time in history should either JDT, the team finishing the 2021 league season in 2nd place, or themselves win the 2021 Malaysia Cup.

But regardless of where they finish, Penang could look back to the 2021 season with fond memories – they’ve upset the order and managed to revive the spirits of the glorious Penang side of old. They’ve dared to dream, now it’s time to continue that dream.