Even though he is an optimist, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad has conceded that the defence of their Malaysian Super League (MSL) crown is all but over with seven matches to go.
"We're not talking about the title any more," the 51-year-old said yesterday as his side geared up for this evening's clash with Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Following Saturday's 1-2 loss in Terengganu, the Singapore outfit find themselves eighth in the 12-team standings, 13 points adrift of leaders Selangor but with a game in hand.
And they will be further handicapped by the unavailability of several key players.
Winger Nazrul Nazari is out with a hamstring injury, midfielder Raihan Rahman is suspended, while centre-back Baihakki Khaizan cannot face the club he left last month as part of an agreement with his former employers.
"We have no options left on the bench," Fandi lamented.
The former national captain has, however, been encouraged by the recent performances of midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin and winger Gabriel Quak.
"They've stepped up," he said of the pair. "But we also need to see more of them defensively."
Zulfahmi and Quak both started in Terengganu but were unable to prevent a defeat set up by the award of a controversial penalty. Both players are likely to start tonight as their improved form warranted their selections.
"We've had big problems with the referees," Fandi said. "There have been many cases of dubious refereeing. Meanwhile we should have had 10 penalties but not even one has been given."
Even so, the LionsXII coach expects his young side to keep plugging away on the pitch.
"The important thing is to develop them into better players," he said. "That means we mustn't give up. We have to keep on playing and entertaining our fans."
This article was published on May 20 in The Straits Times.
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