Eager for a cup adventure

Eager for a cup adventure

The class of 2012 were a team of hungry players, some below the age of 23, others with international experience in their mid-20s and some close to the peak of their powers at the age of 28.

Last year's squad featured only five players over the age of 23 - and the LionsXII side did not make it through to the Malaysia Cup final.

This year's edition of the famous competition kicks off tonight, with the Singapore side hosting Group A opponents Felda United at the Jalan Besar Stadium, and there is a quiet confidence in the ranks of the LionsXII.

Despite their struggles in this year's Malaysian Super League (MSL) campaign - the LionsXII failed to defend the title and finished eighth in the 12-team competition - and the team's comparative inexperience, they believe they can match the performance of their predecessors.

"2012 was the year when we had the best team to win the tournament, but they didn't," said midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin, 22.

"Because of our bad form in the league, people won't fear us, and I think we can surprise in the Cup - we really want to do well."

The first LionsXII side finished third in the MSL and lost at the semi-final stage of the post-season Malaysia Cup.

Many didn't expect the 2013 side to do as well, but V Sundramoorthy's team surprised everyone by storming to the MSL title, only to be knocked out in the Cup quarter-finals.

Morale

Sundram is now the coach of Negeri Sembilan, and it is the turn of coach Fandi Ahmad to steer the team through a competition he knows so well from his playing days.

Fandi has been working on raising the morale of his team. The former Singapore captain and multiple Malaysia Cup winner has called for his charges to stand up and be counted.

"Past squads had better players... but there can be no more excuses, players like Zulfahmi, Shahfiq Ghani and Gabriel Quak have to perform and show that they belong in this team and can lead even though they are young," said Fandi.

"And I know that not only them, the entire team are also very eager to prove a point."

Singapore star Baihakki Khaizan was part of the first two LionsXII sides and rejoined the team in May after a five-month stint with Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT).

The 30-year-old centre back is optimistic.

"We know what we've done wrong, what we've missed out on, and we must approach the game with optimism," he said.

"This is a cup competition and if we can start brightly, get into rhythm and get some momentum going, who knows where we will end up?"

Both players and their coach acknowledged the loss of experienced heads like midfield star Hariss Harun (JDT) and former skipper Shahril Ishak (JDT II), but Zulfahmi is determined to turn things around.

"Shahril was such a big loss for us, but we need to look forward. We've got Khairul Amri, who is an intelligent player, we've brought back Baihakki in defence and have Isa Halim in midfield - the core of our team is still strong," he said.

"It's time for us to step up."

The situation still isn't ideal for Fandi.

National Service commitments may yet deprive him of two players - Madhu Mohana and Faris Ramli - today, but Fandi is hopeful that the duo can make it. It is a situation that is exacerbated by the suspensions of Raihan Rahman and Sufian Anuar.

"It's a difficult situation and, because of that, we haven't decided our line-up yet," said Fandi.

"But we really want to win this game for the fans whom we hope will turn up and support us."


This article was first published on August 13, 2014.
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