The LionsXII have little to play for in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) this season.
Currently in eighth place with five games remaining, and 10 points adrift of leaders Selangor, the champions must now make up for a disappointing MSL campaign and concentrate on the Malaysia Cup.
But captain Isa Halim pulled no punches when he said a drastic improvement is required, if the Singapore side aim to make the Cup final in October.
Isa returned to full training on Monday, well ahead of schedule after he underwent an operation to remove a bone spur in his left heel on March 28.
The midfielder, who played in eight league games before going under the knife, was scheduled to be back only next month, in time for the Malaysia Cup, but could now feature in the remaining five league matches.
The 28-year-old played 60 minutes in a training match against S.League side Hougang United's reserve team at the Jalan Besar Stadium last night, and is optimistic of getting some first-team action as early as next Tuesday, when the LionsXII face Kelantan in Kota Baru.
The tough-tackler shared his observation of this year's league campaign with The New Paper after last night's training, saying: "At the start, we knew it was going to be a difficult season, especially since the Malaysian teams could field three foreigners.
"But lying in eighth place after 17 games has surprised me. We can talk about doing well in the Malaysia Cup to salvage our season, but, honestly, we need to improve drastically to stand a chance of reaching the final."
Isa, who missed just one game in last season's title-winning campaign, insisted the team had no excuse for failing to beat smaller teams like Sime Darby at home.
"Our home form has been far from what it was last season," he said.
"Winning the MSL last year does not make us superstars. I think that feeling of superiority got to some of the players' heads this year. "We have to reflect on ourselves and restore some pride - for ourselves and the fans."
The Singapore international missed nine MSL games, and in that span the LionsXII won four, lost four and drew with T-Team.
Isa admitted he performed below par during the first half of the season, when he struggled with the painful bone spur in his left heel.
The remaining five MSL games, he believes, would be crucial for the team as coach Fandi Ahmad and his staff try to raise morale and improve on their teamwork.
"I'll be the first to raise my hand and say I need to step up as well," said Isa.
"While I was out the past two months, I trained really hard, in and out of the gym.
"Last week, the team physio saw that I could do much more than light training and I could go full on.
"Of course, I'm a bit rusty after not playing for two months, but hopefully, without the pain in my heel, I'll play much better.
"The next five games are crucial. I'll have to fight for my place in the first 11, and that kind of competition should keep everyone on their toes."
This article was first published on June 05, 2014.
Get The New Paper for more stories.