Baihakki's return frees up Safuwan

SINGAPORE - He brings a wealth of international experience and a commanding, defensive presence.

But, for all that the LionsXII stand to gain from Baihakki Khaizan's return, the most important may be that he provides new and exciting options.

In particular, his former defensive partner Safuwan Baharudin can now be utilised in other key positions for the remainder of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) season.

LionsXII assistant coach Nazri Nasir revealed yesterday that the versatile 22-year-old is set to take on a more advanced role as the Singapore outfit look to improve on their sixth-place standing.

"With Baihakki around, I can definitely see Safuwan playing further forward," the former national captain said.

"Whether that is up front or in midfield, it's still too early to say but he has shown that he can perform in every position."

With four league goals this season - second to striker Khairul Amri's five - Safuwan's ability at both ends of the pitch has made for something of a catch-22 situation for his coaches.

"We cannot depend on him for everything," Nazri said of the Singapore international who at times has been deployed further upfield at the expense of defensive stability.

Baihakki's return, after half a season with MSL rivals Johor Darul Takzim, changes all that.

Having successfully negotiated a release from his four-year, $30,000-a-month deal, the 30-year-old will lead a young backline that has let in 15 goals in 14 league outings.

"One of the team's biggest weaknesses this season has been their inconsistency," noted Baihakki, a key member of the LionsXII's 2013 MSL-winning side.

"But they are a developmental team that is still getting used to playing at this level. Hopefully, with my experience, I can help instill a winning mentality and hunger in these boys."

After his return was rubber-stamped by the Football Association of Malaysia, Baihakki will be involved in his first LionsXII training session today and seek to strike up a formidable defensive partnership with Afiq Yunos.

Afiq is keen to learn from his new colleague at the tail end of a debut season that has, in his own words, had its fair share of ups and downs.

"I was a bit worried that with Baihakki coming back, I would see less playing time," the 23-year-old said. "But there's no pressure - at this stage of my career, it's all about the learning.

"This is the first time that I'll be training with him on a daily basis - hopefully, it will give me an idea of what areas of my own game I can improve on."

This article was published on May 9 in The Straits Times.

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