LionsXII: Fitter, faster and feistier
SINGAPORE - The players are unchanged, the coach remains the same - for now at least - and their will to win is as strong as ever.
But as they kick off their Malaysia Cup journey against Kedah at Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday, do not expect to see the same Lions- XII from a month ago.
Those who recently spent time under new national coach Bernd Stange have returned fitter, faster and feistier.
"Not only has our stamina improved, we also keep the ball better and pass faster," said right-back Faritz Hameed.
He is among nine LionsXII players who featured in the 0-2 Asian Cup qualifying loss to Oman last week.
The German had put his troops through a gruelling training camp in the lead-up to the clash as he establishes a new, high-tempo, quick-passing style.
Utility player Hafiz Sujad, for instance, has seen his body fat dip from 12 per cent in June to as low as 5 per cent a fortnight ago.
It must be a scary thought for their rivals who were powerless to stop the LionsXII's charge to the Malaysian Super League title.
The local team won 10 of 11 games at home and conceded only 15 goals in 22 matches - a league-best.
Still, there is the fear of tinkering with a winning formula as the LionsXII played a mix of attacking football at home and a counter-attacking style dependent on set-pieces away.
"Individually, the national players have returned leaner and stronger - but as a team, we must not forget the way we played that won us the league, which was by attacking and defending as a unit," said full-back Irwan Shah, who was not called up for international duty.
Hafiz, however, sees little variation in the tactics of Stange and his LionsXII counterpart V. Sundramoorthy.
"Both emphasise moving the ball around quickly and pressing our opponents high up the pitch," said the 22-year-old.
"The small difference may be that Sundram allows for more freedom if you have space to dribble instead of pass."
Kedah's dangermen include former Chilean top-flight midfielder Nelson San Martín and playmaker Baddrol Bakhtiar, who skippered Malaysia to football gold at the 2011 SEA Games.
The hosts hope to have Faritz and forward Faris Ramli recovered from knocks.
Centre-back Safuwan Baharudin misses out as he completes a two-match suspension.
The Singapore outfit will also face Sarawak and Perak in Group D of the 16-team competition.
The top two sides from each of the four groups progress to the quarter-finals.
Sundram, who is tipped to leave his post for a club across the Causeway next season, wants a strong start in their march towards the Nov 3 final at Shah Alam Stadium.
"Kedah are a decent team and well-organised at the back," said the former national striker. "In the end, it's down to us. "If we turn up to play like champions, not many teams can handle us."
Malaysia Cup: LionsXII v Kedah
Jalan Besar, 7.30pm
Live, StarHub Ch112/Ch201 & HD Ch255 and 76.25MHz
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