A refereeing controversy right at the death of the LionsXII clash with Terengganu last night denied the reigning Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions a draw.
Baihakki Khaizan had the ball in the back of the net in the 90th minute but referee Muhammad Zamzaidi Katimin ruled it out for offside.
Instead, the Singapore side were consigned to a 2-1 defeat at the Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah Stadium in Kuala Terangganu despite having taken an early lead via Khairul Amri.
Colombian striker Joseph Estupinan and captain Zairo Anuar replied for the hosts to seal their first win in five matches.
What was supposed to be coach Fandi Ahmad's side's springboard to go up the table ended up becoming quicksand that is sucking the team deeper into mid-table mediocrity.
With the sides above them playing each other over the next eight weeks, the Singapore outfit had the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the crossfire and close the gap at the top.
Instead, the reigning MSL champions found themselves further behind the pack at the top and will now be left to rue the loss, their sixth of the season.
The result means they remain in eighth position with 21 points but are now 13 points adrift of leaders Selangor, who defeated Sime Darby FC 1-0 and now have 34 points.
Having identified this game, and the upcoming home games against Johor Darul Takzim and Malaysian military side ATM, as must-win fixtures, Fandi opted for pace on the flanks, as fleet-footed winger Gabriel Quak was reinstated to the side.
Centre-back Safuwan Baharudin, the team's second top scorer with four goals, was pushed up behind striker Khairul Amri.
Fandi had hoped to invite Terengganu to attack before hitting them with quick counter-attacks.
That plan seemed to work in the seventh minute, when they took the lead against the run of play.
Shakir Hamzah broke forward down the left and floated a cross to Amri, who made no mistake with his header that went in off the far post.
But the Turtles were causing problems by feeding long passes to their two burly forwards, Moustapha Dabo (1.86m) and Joseph Estupinan (1.90m).
This tactic enabled the duo to cut short the Singapore side's celebrations with the equaliser three minutes later.
A long ball from defender Vincent Bikana set Dabo clear of the LionsXII backline, forcing goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud to come off his line and tip away his shot that was eventually cleared for a corner.
From the set-piece taken by Zairo Anuar, Colombian striker Estupinan prodded home for his first goal since joining the club in April.
It was mostly one-way traffic from that point onwards, as the hosts piled on the pressure in search of the goal to break their four-game winless streak.
Their efforts paid off in the 69th minute when they were awarded a penalty after a foul on Estupinan.
The Colombian had rounded Izwan but went down after what seemed like minimal contact.
Zairo stepped up and sent Izwan the wrong way to seal the three points for the visitors.
The LionsXII now have to pick themselves up for the visit of MSL big-spenders Johor Darul Takzim to Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday.
This article was published on May 18 in The Straits Times.
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