The unsung heroes

The unsung heroes
MIDDLE MEN: (From left) Midfielders Firdaus Kasman, Isa Halim and Izzdin Shafiq, arriving at their hotel in Kuantan yesterday, have pleased LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad with their improvement.

In a year when Singapore football has generally disappointed, the LionsXII have provided some rare cause for optimism.

Their adventurous style of play has delivered a refreshing avalanche of goals.

After seven games in all competitions, the Singaporean side have scored 16 goals, compared to just nine at the same stage last year.

They may lie eighth out of 12 teams in the Malaysian Super League, but the LionsXII are just two points behind third-placed Selangor.

Fandi Ahmad's men have also advanced to the Malaysian FA Cup quarter-finals.

In a bid to sharpen his attack, the LionsXII coach has plumped for a 4-3-3 formation with Khairul Amri flanked by Gabriel Quak and Faris Ramli.

The three forwards have flourished and caught the eye with eight goals between them in seven games.

Deserving equal credit is the under-rated trio of central midfielders - skipper Isa Halim, Izzdin Shafiq and Firdaus Kasman - who have toiled purposefully throughout the season.

As Isa sits in a deeper role, mopping up the danger in front of the defence, Izzdin shuttles from box to box, winning possession and distributing play.

Firdaus provides the creative spark in a more advanced role.

While Isa has been a mainstay of the LionsXII since their 2012 inception, the emergence of Izzdin and Firdaus has been a pleasant surprise.

The pair, who were part of the pioneer batch but left before rejoining at different stages, had never scored for the LionsXII till this season. Each has one goal to his name.

Izzdin scored with a delightful chip against PDRM and Firdaus thumped in a stunning volley against Perak.

The duo have also three assists between them this term.

Firdaus feels that there is no real secret to their successful partnership, just lots of repetition and hard work.

The 27-year-old told The New Paper: "There's no secret to our success. Everything is worked out in training and we put in a lot of effort to practise our combination and communication.

"Playing in a three-man central midfield is nothing new to me, as my former club Tampines have always used a 3-5-2 formation.

"I have learnt many things playing alongside Fahra (Mustafic Fahrudin) and Shahdan (Sulaiman).

"So in training, the wide forwards like Faris (Ramli) and Gabriel (Quak) and I will discuss how they should make the runs and how I should make the pass to create that attacking option.

"I did not have the best season with the LionsXII last year, but I told myself I needed to prove a point this season.

"I want to play regular football and, to do that, I need to create and contribute more goals."

Likewise, Izzdin also wants to show what he is capable of, after seeing his opportunities limited in previous years due to National Service.

The 24-year-old told TNP: "Because of NS, I didn't really get to play much in the LionsXII team in 2012 and 2013.

"Competition was really keen then with Hariss (Harun), Isa and even Shahril (Ishak) dominating the central positions.

"Joining Home United last year was a good career move for me because I had more playing time.

LEARNING

"It was a very good experience as I learnt a lot from players such as Noh Rahman, Juma'at Jantan and Lee Kwan Woo on how to read and control the tempo of the game.

"My strength is my long passes, but now my decision-making has improved and I now know better when to use the long ball and when to play it short.

"These qualities will be important against Malaysia Cup champions Pahang, who are known for their pace.

"We need to be disciplined, fit and focused."

Indeed, the LionsXII will have to be alert to the danger posed by Pahang's central midfield, helmed by Hafiz Kamal, who will look to initiate attacks down the flanks by releasing the ball to speedy wingers R Gopinathan and Azamuddin Akil.

Said Fandi: "We have to close them down in the middle, before they get it to their dangermen on the flanks or their strikers Matias Conti and Dickson Nwakaeme.

"Our central midfielders have been improving and are working very hard to keep their place in the first 11.

"They have good technical abilities, they keep the ball well and can play good penetrative passes, which were what we were lacking last season.

"I'm pleased with their performances so far, but it's still early in the season. We need them to keep up the good work and be consistent.

"We want to give our fans something to cheer about by moving up the table and, to do so, getting results away from home is very important.

"We beat them 2-1 here in Kuantan last year in the Malaysia Cup for the first time, so we must believe we can do it again."

YESTERDAY'S RESULT

l PDRM 1 Sarawak 0

PAHANG v LIONSXII

(Tonight, 8.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)

TONIGHT’S OTHER FIXTURES

Selangor v Sime Darby

Felda United v Perak

Terengganu v Kelantan

Johor Darul Ta'zim v ATM FA

LIONSXII'S PROBABLE LINE-UP

- Izwan Mahbud

- Faritz Abdul Hameed

- Madhu Mohana

- Zulfahmi Arifin

- Hafiz Abu Sujad

- Isa Halim

- Izzdin Shafiq

- Firdaus Kasman

- Gabriel Quak

- Khairul Amri

- Faris Ramli

gavinfoo@sph.com.sg

davidlee@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Apr 4, 2015.
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