SINGAPORE - The three points were almost in the bag but with the finishing line in sight, the LionsXII fumbled and began their Malaysia Cup campaign with a controversial last-gasp penalty that gave Kedah a 2-2 draw at Fortress Jalan Besar.
Two minutes into stoppage time, the visitors' striker Syafiq Ahmad breezed past left-back Hafiz Abu Sujad, continued his mazy run unchecked inside the box before centre-back Shakir Hamzah stuck out a leg that appeared high.
Syafiq ended up tumbling on the artificial turf and referee Wan Mohd Tarmizi pointed to the spot. Croatian striker Alen Guc stroked the ball home to earn his side a precious point.
Neither LionsXII coach V. Sundramoorthy nor Kedah tactician Antonio Sisic were able to comment as they said they did not have a clear view of the incident. According to midfielder Isa Halim, who was tracking the ball, it was not a penalty.
He insisted: "I saw Shakir pulling back his leg, there was definitely no contact with the opponent but the referee had another opinion." More worrying for the Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions, who are eyeing a league and Cup double, is how Kedah came and almost outfought the hosts, who had won 10 games out of 11 at home this season.
Kedah finished fourth in the second-tier Malaysian Premier League this season, missing out on the two promotion slots. And to pile on the woes for the LionsXII, Shahril Ishak was stretchered off in the 75th minute after taking a knock to his right knee. Sundram said his captain's fitness would be assessed today.
"We were second best tonight," admitted Isa. "We should have dominated the game but Kedah managed to get back each time.
"The boys are feeling down right now and we have to regroup and focus on our strength, which is grinding out results."
Sundram's men will face Sarawak in Kuching on Saturday and Perak in Ipoh next Tuesday in two testing away fixtures. Before 6,830 fans, the hosts led after 11 minutes when forward Fazrul Nawaz crossed from the left flank for Shahril to nod into an empty net.
But Kedah equalised 12 minutes later when Guc bundled across the line from close range.
The match degenerated into a series of niggling fouls before forward Shahfiq Ghani's 25-metre free-kick curled into the bottom corner in the 59th minute.
The LionsXII were cruising to victory until the defensive lapse cost them. Sisic could not contain his delight after the game. He hailed his team's fighting spirit and praised flu-stricken captain Baddrol Bakhtiar for soldiering on.
For the disappointed Sundram, the focus now is to pick up the pieces. Such fiery Malaysia Cup games are now par for the course, he noted. As tackles flew in thick and fast, Baihakki Khaizan, Shahfiq and Hafiz were all booked.
He said: "The boys fought for everything and we were supposed to get three points.
"Now, we have to go to Sarawak and Perak and get something out of there. "This was an emotional game and we should learn how to control our emotions and play the game. "When you drop points at Jalan Besar, it feels like a loss."
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.