LionsXII cool under pressure

LionsXII Fazrul Nawaz (centre) pays tribute to the late Adrian Dhanaraj after scoring the winner for his team in the Malaysia Cup match against Sarawak held at the Jalan Besar Stadium on 19 September 2013. LionsXII beat Sarawal 1-0.

Post-Match, LionsXII coach V Sundramoorthy stepped into the press conference room to warm applause after the slim victory over Sarawak.

Outside, some of the 6,834 fans lingered in the stands or near the mixed zone, celebrating and congratulating the players for protecting Fortress Jalan Besar and recording yet another win - their 12th in 14 home games this season.

The reception was similar to the scenes after the Singaporean side beat Felda United 4-0 to win the Malaysian Super League in July.

With one big exception: the LionsXII have won nothing in the Malaysia Cup yet. They may have surged from bottom to second in Group D with three vital points, but if they don't go on and get at least a draw at Kedah on Saturday (see equation), last night's victory will be their last home game in front of their adoring fans.

Said Sundram, who obviously is aware of the task ahead: "The job is not done yet. "What we have done is to keep our excellent home record going, and keep ourselves in contention to make it to the quarter-finals.

"Like I told you before the match, tonight's game could be the start to our Malaysia Cup journey after a bad opening to this campaign."

Indeed, there were some positives to suggest that the LionsXII can progress to the knock-out stages. For perhaps the first time in this Malaysia Cup, Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin showed why they are regarded as South-east Asia's best centre-back pairing with an assured performance at the back to collect their first clean sheet in six games.

Baihakki and Shakir Hamzah, both on two yellow cards, were also disciplined enough to prevent a third that would rule them out of the Kedah game.

The indefatigable Isa Halim thwarted most of Sarawak's attacks even before they could advance into the final third and the Crocodiles' dangermen Junior Eldstal and Muamer Salibasic had a torrid evening.

In fact, Sarawak's only shot on goal came from Joseph Kalang Tie's hopeful attempt from 30 metres. It was easily collected by Izwan Mahbud.

Going forward, Zulfahmi Arifin's range of passing was impressive and Gabriel Quak's willingness to take men on was also encouraging.

But what stood out was that despite needing to win this game, the LionsXII were patient in their build-up play, a stark contrast to the panicky scenes in their last match against Perak, which they edged 2-1.

They teased and probed, and seized on a lapse of Sundram's men back in contention after slaying Crocodiles, but job not done yet concentration as Baihakki threaded through for substitute Fazrul Nawaz to fashion a composed 63rd-minute finish.

After getting the goal they wanted, Sundram's side bolted the door shut and there were to be no concession of dangerous last-minute free-kicks or penalties.

TNP's Man-of-the-Match Baihakki said: "Most of our players who were in the national team or Under- 23s took a beating in some matches during the international break.

"But it says a lot that we returned calmer, more composed, and got a morale-boosting result.

"The clean sheet and our unbeaten record against Kedah give us confidence that we can get something at Alor Star and progress to the quarterfinals."

Sundram suggested it will be a battle of wits on Saturday, and added: "Kedah can also qualify, so they will be under pressure to beat us.

"We need to be tactically smart. If we accomplish that, and the players follow instructions, we should be able to get the job done."

davidlee@sph.com.sg


Get The New Paper for more stories.

SERVICES