Football: Zul set to start for Lions

File photo of Zulfahmi Arifin

He has raised the ire of the fans while playing for the LionsXII, and even coach Fandi Ahmad has acknowledged that young midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin has been poor.

But it has not prevented the 22-year-old from getting a national call-up.

In fact, due to an injury to his LionsXII captain Isa Halim, the playmaker is set to start in midfield alongside Hariss Harun when Singapore take on Oman in their final Asian Cup Group A qualifier in Muscat next Wednesday.

The confirmed Lions squad list should be released on Wednesday, but The New Paper understands that the 20-man team leaving on Sunday morning will not include Isa and striker Khairul Amri, both of whom are still recovering from injuries.

Johor Darul Ta'zim defender Baihakki Khaizan is also out due to a one-match suspension, while Tampines Rovers midfielder Shahdan Sulaiman was not selected.

Speaking to TNP on Tuesday, national coach Bernd Stange insisted Shahdan had not been axed.

"Shahdan is not out (of the national set-up)," said Stange. "I did not call him up because I did not want to take him only as a substitute. I have other younger players like Anu (Anumanthan Kumar) and Iqbal (Hussain) for that.

"Also, I want to start Hariss and Zul in central midfield against Oman. They are the combination for the future, I believe.

"We have to look forward now to the Suzuki Cup (in December) and Asian Cup in 2019."

Singapore are bottom of Group A with no chance of qualifying for the tournament proper in Australia next year.

Oman and Jordan - placed first and second - have already qualified, while Syria are in third place.

Zulfhami's inclusion in the starting 11 is a peculiar one, given his lacklustre performances for the LionsXII in the Malaysian Super League this season.


But Stange says it's simply a matter of belief in the left-footed midfielder, who started in the Lions' 3-1 defeat by Jordan at the Jalan Besar Stadium (Feb 4).

"You have to (understand) that he was not playing for the whole of last year," said the 65-year-old German. "Now, he has had three months of full training and matches, he is getting better.

"I believe in him. Zul can be one of the leading players for Singapore in the next five years.

"He has a great left foot and is comfortable on the ball. You can see sometimes when his teammate is in trouble, he looks for Zul to pass the ball to.

"But Zul has to wake up now. We have to help him get better."

Amri's absence means Shahfiq Ghani (LionsXII) and Iqbal Hussain (Courts Young Lions) will vie for a spot in attack, alongside captain Shahril Ishak.

In defence, there is also a recall for Home United defender Juma'at Jantan, who has missed the last three call-ups.

Stange, however, is likely to stick with the LionsXII starting back-four, which means Faritz Hameed (right back), Shakir Hamzah (left back) and central defenders Safuwan Baharudin and Afiq Yunos.

Over the last few weeks, 23-year-old Safuwan has been in superb form for the LionsXII, showing his versatility with Fandi using him as a defender, midfielder and even a striker.

Stange acknowledged the player's performance, when he said: "We have seen an outstanding player in Safuwan.

"At his age, it is great that he can be used in central defence, as a No. 6 (in midfield) and even as a striker."

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