With another Malaysia Super League season coming to a close, there was a certain familiarity — even inevitability — as Johor Darul Ta’zim lifted a 9th consecutive crown on Saturday.
And while it was only at the weekend that the Southern Tigers got their hands on the trophy, the title had long been in the bag after they wrapped things up at the start of the month with four games to spare.
The 12-point margin they ended up winning by was not too different from last year’s buffer of 14, even if it did at one stage look like they would be challenged by surprise packages Sabah and Negeri Sembilan.
However, even as the sentiment that the MSL is at risk of becoming a one-horse race grows with each JDT triumph, there is already plenty of intrigue that surrounds the competition when it resumes in 2023 — even though there is still the matter of the Malaysia Cup to be played out before the year is over.
The emergence of Sabah, under ex-Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee, and newly-promoted Negeri Sembilan — who remarkably finished fourth in their first year back in the top flight — was a breath of fresh air, as they took the place of usual suspects like Kedah Darul Aman, Terengganu and Selangor in threatening to upset the status quo.
It was nonetheless Terengganu who can ultimately boast to being runners-up this year, as a stunning nine-game winning streak to end the season proved enough to overtake Sabah in second spot on the final day of the season.
The increased diversity in competition among the best of the rest bodes well for the MSL, along with the hope that comes with every new campaign that it will finally be the year one of them can give JDT a run for their money.
But the main reason why 2023 is promising to be an exciting one for the MSL is the fact that — for the first time ever — the top flight of Malaysian football will expand to an 18-team league, following a decision earlier this year to restructure the competition.
In a move that will also temporarily remove promotion and relegation from the Malaysian football pyramid for the immediate future, a 34-match season would actually take the MSL on par with Japan’s J1 League and the Chinese Super League and even match prominent European competitions such as the Bundesliga and Eredivisie.
Of course, adding teams to a league and increasing the number of games does not necessarily guarantee increased competitiveness or quality.
After all, it can even seen as an indictment that JDT II — the club’s reserve team – were likewise victorious in the soon-to-be-abolished second-tier Malaysia Premier League.
The onus will be on the MSL’s other 11 existing clubs, along with the six that are coming up from the MPL, to raise their level.
Still, there is also something quite exciting about seeing fallen giants from yesteryear return to the big time.
Even without expansion, Kelantan would have done enough to earn promotion by virtue of being the runners-up in the MPL this season.
It was not too long ago that the Red Warriors were the dominant force that JDT currently are, winning consecutive MSL titles between 2011-12 along with a Malaysia Cup, and even reaching the quarterfinals of the AFC Cup.
Then there is also Perak, who were similarly back-to-back champions of Malaysia in 2002-03 and won the Malaysia Cup as recently as four years ago, although there is an element of good fortune in their return to the top flight.
Despite their second-from-bottom finish in the MPL, they were — by default — the 6th and final club eligible to be included in the MSL’s expansion, given the other four teams competing in the second tier are reserve teams like JDT II and thus ineligible for promotion.
It will also be interesting to see how fledging outfits like Kuching City and Kelantan United, in existence for less than a decade but who have shown positive signs, fare battling it out with the traditional powerhouses.
Changes are definitely afoot in Malaysian football.
For JDT’s rivals — basically the 17 other teams that will grace the MSL in 2023 — they will all be hoping that the saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” does not hold true come next season.
Yet, even if the Southern Tigers will once again be the team to beat in 2023, there is still plenty to get excited about as Malaysian football enters a new era.