Southeast Asia Malaysia

Sabah Squander Asian Qualification in Final Day

Sabah FC saw their hopes of qualifying into the 2023 AFC Cup go up in flames in the final day of the season following a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of league champions Johor Darul Ta’zim on Saturday. The result, combined with Terengganu FC’s 3-1 win away at Kedah Darul Aman at the same time, meant that the Turtles have leapfrogged the Rhinos into the runners-up spot, effectively snatching a ticket to next season’s AFC Cup from right under Sabah’s noses.

Coming into Saturday’s last set of Liga Super matches, JDT have sealed themselves the league title with only three matches to go earlier this month, while three sides are vying for the runners-up spot – 2nd placed Sabah, who are seeking to cap off their fairy tale season with their highest finish since 2002, 3rd placed Terengganu who have consistently finished in the top half of the Liga Super table in the past two years, and 4th placed Negeri Sembilan FC, who, like Sabah, are embarking on a fairy tale campaign of their own following promotion from the Liga Premier Malaysia last season.

With Sabah only one point above Terengganu in the standings, the Rhinos were faced with the unfathomable job of beating JDT at their Sultan Ibrahim Stadium, where the Southern Tigers have yet to lose this season. Making the task even more difficult is the fact that JDT have won all but one of their home games in the current league campaign.

All pretenses that JDT are going to put their foot off the gas following confirmation of their league title were dropped after head coach Hector Bidoglio decided to deploy his big guns for the last game of the season, including the likes of Bergson, Leandro Velazquez, Arif Aiman, Matthew Davies and La’Vere Corbin-Ong in his starting lineup while naming a strong bench that included Safawi Rasid, Akhyar Rashid, and Mohamadou Sumareh.

With Terengganu and Negeri Sembilan taking on relatively more manageable foes in the form of an out-of-sorts Kedah and Sri Pahang FC respectively, Sabah’s goal of stealing points from the Sultan Ibrahim was virtually mission impossible and the Southern Tigers predictably made mincemeat out of the Rhinos.

Both Bergson and Arif scored in the 17th and 39th minute respectively to give JDT a 2-0 advantage coming into half-time, before league top-scorer Bergson completed his brace in the 55th minute to put the result beyond any doubt, forcing Datuk Ong Kim Swee’s Sabah side to leave Johor Bahru empty-handed.

Kipre Tchetche then added salt into Sabah’s wounds by scoring a brace for Terengganu in their match away at Kedah, guiding the Turtles to a resounding 3-1 win that also saw Faisal Halim scoring a 4th minute opener for Terengganu and Dechi N’Guessan scoring a late consolation goal for Kedah. The result meant that Terengganu would leapfrog Sabah into 2nd place, earning themselves a ticket to the 2023 AFC Cup in the process.

Sabah’s continental hopes weren’t extinguished completely, however, as they would have to do well in the upcoming Malaysia Cup or hope that either JDT or Terengganu would win the competition to secure themselves Malaysia’s other AFC Cup ticket.

Meanwhile, at the Darul Makmur Stadium in Kuantan, Negeri Sembilan’s runners-up aspirations were snuffed out after Sri Pahang had beaten them 2-0, but despite the defeat, the Jangs have made a commendable effort in their first season back in the Liga Super after a three season absence with a solid 4th place finish.

Saturday’s other results saw last-placed Penang FC holding Selangor FC to a 1-1 draw, while this season’s AFC Cup finalists Kuala Lumpur City FC succumbed to a 1-0 loss away at Petaling Jaya City FC in their final match before their date with destiny at the end of this month. Last but not least, Melaka United edged out Sarawak United 1-0 in a battle between two teams who were set to be expelled from next season’s Liga Super.