SINGAPORE - Although weakened by three key departures, new LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad is counting on a blend of experience and new blood to defend the team's Malaysian Super League (MSL) crown.
On Tuesday, the former national football captain named a 24-man squad for the upcoming season, having retained 16 of the 29 players from last season's side.
The 51-year-old signed eight new players, with six of them promoted from the S-League's Courts Young Lions, who are essentially the national Under-21 team. They are goalkeeper Abdul Qadir, defenders Afiq Yunos, Raihan Rahman and Emmeric Ong as well as midfielders Ignatius Ang and Samuel Benjamin.
The other new faces are forwards Khairul Amri and Sufian Anuar, who return to the team after a season with Tampines Rovers and Warriors FC respectively.
Captain and playmaker Shahril Ishak has signed for second-tier Johor FA while Fandi's former club Johor Darul Takzim have snapped up centre-back Baihakki Khaizan and central midfielder Hariss Harun.
But Fandi, who has a reputation for blooding youngsters throughout his 13-year coaching career, is hoping the blood transfusion will help in the title defence.
He said: "I'm pleased to have a strong squad that is a combination of experience and youth.
"A number of these players played in international friendly matches and tournaments, and are now at the SEA Games, and they will add a lot of experience and resilience to the squad."
But one player who will not be part of the squad next year is Izzdin Shafiq. The 22-year-old midfielder, who is currently at the SEA Games and was expected to play a bigger role for the LionsXII this year, has signed for S-League club Home United.
The Football Association of Singapore has set the team targets of a top-three finish in the MSL and a place in a Cup final.
Fandi, who has pledged to play attacking football, believes the players he has assembled are capable of delivering, saying: "The team are committed to doing well and I am certain that the players will work hard to achieve the targets set for them.
"I have absolute confidence in this squad's strength and commitment and I hope to do my part in taking these young players to the next level.
"I look forward to the support of all our stakeholders, including the media and fans, as we work together to fulfil our target."
The LionsXII will begin their MSL campaign with a match against Malaysia Cup champions Pahang in Kuantan on Jan 17.
Though it will be an MSL encounter, the Football Association of Malaysia has designated the tie as the Charity Shield game to add more spice to the occasion.
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