Ahead of their MSL opener on Saturday, coach Fandi Ahmad tells David Lee why he thinks the LionsXII can finish in the top three and his goal to entertain the fans
1. Can you tell us how pre-season preparations went and how the team is shaping up for the new season?
Fandi: We had a good pre-season here, and in Malaysia and in the Maldives. I got to see almost every player in action.
Firdaus Kasman is coming up, Nazrul Ahmad Nazari did well, and so did Gabriel Quak. Christopher van Huizen lacks experience at this level, but he also impressed in some friendly matches.
We need Firdaus to control the midfield.
He has good technical ability, he is hardworking, but still needs to improve on producing more decisive passes and making more penetrative runs into the box.
Nazrul has good pace, as we all know, but now he is making more of it by running into the area and taking shots.
He has improved on his defending and can also be an option at right back.
Madhu (Mohana) has been one of our best performers so far and he is communicating well in defence.
I believe players like Chris are raw diamonds. They have guts and ability, and could be key for us this season.
Our team are more mature, the players understand each other even more, especially in midfield.
Last year, our players were more individualistic, but now they think more for the team and play more compact.
I told them we don't have individuals who can win matches week-in, week-out, so everyone has to take responsibility and carry the load for each other.
We will try our best, we will need to show all the fighting spirit we have. I can see the hunger in the players.
2. First up will be PDRM FA at Jalan Besar this Saturday. How important will it be to make Jalan Besar a fortress again?
It is very important for us to win our first match, at home, to hit the ground running.
We also want to send our fans home after every match with smiles after watching an entertaining game.
(Newly-promoted) PDRM are all about the four foreigners.
Traore scored a handful of goals in our recent quadrangular in the Maldives, while Ali Ashfaq is very fast and good with the ball.
Their big centre back (Onorionde Kughegbe) could be part of a three-man defence with Malaysia internationals Muslim Ahmad and Afif Amiruddin, while
Mohamadou Sumareh can be a handful in midfield.
When we met in a 1-0 friendly defeat in the Maldives, they couldn't break us down in the first half because we succeeded in playing compact.
It was only after we had Isa sent off that they got more time and space and, even then, they scored the winner from a penalty.
We can definitely match them, although that also depends on our injury situation and who we have at our disposal.
3. You have set a top-three target. Who do you think are favourites for the MSL title?
Champions Johor Darul Ta'zim are the hot favourites. They were too good against Pahang in the season-opener.
They have strength in defence, their players all look comfortable on the ball, and they also have firepower.
In a one-off match, we can match them, but I think they are the team to beat over the course of the season.
4. Do you think the criticism you and your team faced last season was justified? Was it difficult for you personally?
You will feel something, of course.
This is football, and definitely emotions are involved because we are giving our all and we know how hard everyone - from the players through to the backroom staff - is working.
I hope people can see our efforts in developing these players, understand our situation and the constraints and continue to support us.
Football is always a journey. I hope we will see improvements this year, even with the many new faces.
We just have to think positive.
We know we did our best, tried to entertain and win matches.
Sometimes it got difficult with our injury problems, other times we just had no luck.
For example, we didn't even get one penalty last season despite many legitimate claims.
People can criticise and say what they want, but we will continue to work hard and believe we can achieve better results this year.
5. You have a reputation for attacking football. Can you expand on the plan to entertain fans this season?
We have experimented with both the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations.
If we want to be stronger in midfield, we'll go for three central midfielders in a 4-3-3.
This allows us to field (Khairul) Amri, Sahil (Suhaimi) and Faris (Ramli) up front in a Dutch-style attacking formation.
Amri is our primary centre forward, but the three of them can also interchange positions.
We also have other fine attacking options such as Gabriel, Nazrul and Christopher, who all did well in pre-season, and strikers like Sufian, Syafiq and Nizam who can slot in, depending on our gameplan.
If we have our full squad fit, that would be best.
We would love to have experienced players, but we have younger and more driven players like Chris and Sahil.
Last year, we lacked firepower. This year is different, but we also need to tighten up in defence and younger defenders have to step up in the absence of Safuwan (Baharudin).
As much as we want results, we also want to develop players.
If we don't give the young players a chance, we have no national team in the future.
We hope these players are up to the challenge and reach a new level.
THE LIONSXII SQUAD
Goalkeepers: Izwan Mahbud, Khairulhin Khalid, Zharfan Rohaizad
Defenders: Faritz Abdul Hameed, Madhu Mohana, Safuwan Baharudin, Afiq Yunos, Wahyudi Wahid, Faris Azienuddin, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Zakir Samsudin
Midfielders: Isa Halim, Izzdin Shafiq, Raihan Rahman, Firdaus Kasman, Zulfahmi Arifin, Shahdan Sulaiman, Faris Ramli, Gabriel Quak, Nazrul Ahmad Nazari, Christopher van Huizen, Samuel Benjamin
Forwards: Khairul Amri, Khairul Nizam, Sufian Anuar, Syafiq Zainal, Sahil Suhaimi
This article was first published on Feb 4, 2015.
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