LionsXII without three stalwarts

LionsXII without three stalwarts
Afiq Yunos is back from suspension and is likely to play as a centre-back against Kelantan today.

It is a ground on which they have yet to score, let alone win, in two previous Malaysian Super League (MSL) visits.

So the last thing the LionsXII would have wanted on their latest trip to Kota Baru's Sultan Muhammad IV Stadium is to be without Safuwan Baharudin, Khairul Amri and Shakir Hamzah - three of their regulars who have not made the trip.

Centre-back Safuwan is suspended, left-back Shakir has a hamstring strain, while striker Amri has stayed in Singapore as his nine-month-old son is in hospital with a lung infection.

"We just have to try to make up for their absence with tactical discipline," coach Fandi Ahmad said of the trio, who are three of just four players (the other being goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud) who have started all previous 17 MSL games this term.

The 52-year-old can, however, call upon Afiq Yunos and Madhu Mohana, who have returned from suspension and are likely to slot into defence in place of Safuwan and Shakir respectively.

Sufian Anuar, whose three league goals this season all came in a 4-1 win over Pahang, is likely to replace Amri, the team's leading scorer with seven strikes.

There is a further boost in midfield, where captain Isa Halim is fit for selection after more than two months out to have a spur removed from his left heel.

"Simply being here is motivation enough for me to want to stand up and be counted," the tenacious midfielder, 28, told The Straits Times.

With his squad ravaged by suspensions and injuries, Fandi is delighted to have the Singapore international back and raring to go. "His return comes at a good time because the team are depleted at the moment," the coach said.

But Isa will not start tonight as the LionsXII attempt to win at a ground where they lost 0-3 (in 2012) and 0-2 (last year).

"Match fitness is a concern and the pace of the game here may be an issue for him," Fandi said. "It's always tough, playing here in Kota Baru."

Isa, who played in those two previous defeats before capacity 25,000 crowds in Kota Baru, added: "The Kelantan fans make for an intimidating atmosphere. And the players play with great desire because they know that the fans will always be behind them."

Lying sixth in the 12-team MSL - two spots and a point above the LionsXII - the hosts will have a full squad to choose from. That includes Liberian striker Francis Forkey Doe, who grabbed a late winner in a 2-1 win at the Jalan Besar Stadium on March 8.

Since then, former Netherlands international George Boateng has taken over from Englishman Steve Darby and is determined to build a side capable of challenging for the Malaysia Cup.

"When I came here, the team were disorganised on so many levels," said Boateng, 38. "I had to work on a lot of things, especially the players' fitness, and now we're trying for a top-four spot and the Malaysia Cup."

This article was first published on June 10, 2014.
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