Big effort ends in disappointment

It was only apt that the final 90 minutes of the LionsXII's Malaysian football sojourn was filled with the drama, delirium and disappointment of the past four years.

Faced with a 1-4 first-leg deficit in their Malaysia Cup quarter-final against Pahang, the Singapore outfit put on arguably their best first-half performance last night.

Twice the Pahang net bulged inside the opening 20 minutes.

On his 23th birthday, rising winger Christopher van Huizen gave fans a lasting present with a sumptuous left-footed volley that beat a fully-stretched Khairul Azhan in the Pahang goal.

Five minutes later, with the visitors' backline in shambles, van Huizen's neat flick opened up space for Nazrul Nazari, who delivered a pin-point cross for Faris Ramli but Pahang defender Matthew Davies arguably had the last touch as the ball crossed the line.

Cue delirium in the stands as the 5,898-strong crowd sensed Mission Impossible was not just for Tom Cruise.

The LionsXII pushed on for the decisive third goal, coming closest when Faris' curling effort clipped the crossbar.

But van Huizen's substitution on the hour mark due to cramps seemed to sap creativity from the attack.

Even the usual trick of pushing midfielder Safuwan Baharudin up front did not work without much quality service as the visitors put men behind the ball.

The scoreboard flashed 2-0 to the hosts at the final whistle, though both sides should have added to their tally, particularly in a breathless final half- hour.

As Pahang celebrated their narrow victory, the LionsXII players sank to the turf in despair even as fans rose for a standing ovation.

Tears rolled down the cheeks of captain Izwan Mahbud as he sat alone by his goal. Nearby, his team-mates stared disconsolately at a tribute video on the big screen.

LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad heaped praise on his players, who were given a guard of honour by the Pahang squad as they left the field .

The former national striker, who admitted to receiving "a few good offers" for his coaching services from Malaysian clubs, said: "We went down fighting. It just wasn't our day as our bench was not strong.

"Many players cried, many fans cried - but these four seasons have been a great experience for all of them.

"Whatever the future holds, the boys showed today they have the fire and desire to lift local football.

"The squad have told me they want to stay together. I hope that happens too."

His team departed Malaysian football with some dignity, unbeaten in all 19 home games in a season where they also won the FA Cup.

The Football Association of Malaysia had booted the LionsXII out on Tuesday, also bringing an end to its development team Harimau Muda's S-League spell.

It seemed to spark a siege mentality among the Singaporeans, exemplified by 1.68m-tall defender Hafiz Sujad scrapping hard to win the ball off Pahang's 1.86m-tall Nigerian striker Dickson Nwakaeme.

"LionsXII fought hard, gave us a big scare and nearly left us embarrassed," Pahang coach Zainal Abidin admitted. "We knew they would come at us and yet we were complacent in the first half.

"But we deserved to go through based on our performance in the first leg. We are happy with that, but also sad that the LionsXII are gone."

On an emotional evening, a plain white banner summed up the resignation and respect from Singapore football fans.

It read simply: "Thank you LionsXII."

This article was first published on November 29, 2015.
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