SINGAPORE - LionsXII coach V Sundramoorthy has warned his players already over how tough the Malaysia Cup challenge will be.
But the group rivals of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions insist the Singapore team (right) are the clear favourites to qualify for the quarter-finals.
The Malaysia Cup draw was held in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday, and the LionsXII came out of the hat in Group D, together with Perak, and second-tier Malaysian Premier League (MPL) sides Sarawak and Kedah.
Speaking to The New Paper on Sunday, Perak coach Azraai Khor Abdullah said: "Personally, the only team I really didn't want to face was the LionsXII.
"When the last two seeded teams (LionsXII and Johor Darul Takzim) were being drawn, I was praying for Johor to be in our group.
"I hate going to Jalan Besar because the LionsXII have a huge advantage (with the artificial pitch) there. "Maybe we can try hold on to a draw or something."
Robert Alberts, the coach of MPL champions Sarawak, added: "The LionsXII are definitely the team to beat in our group.
"There will be pressure on them but it will come more from their own desire to win the (MSL and Cup) double, than from the expectations of others.
"But it could be a positive push for them, especially since they have a coach who knows how to deal with that kind of pressure and get the best out of his players."
Azraai understands why Sundram is cautious and trying every tactic possible to keep his players on their toes.
"The Malaysia Cup is a totally different ball game," said the 60-year-old coach, who won consecutive Malaysia Cups with Kedah in 2007 and 2008.
"For us and many other Malaysian teams, it's the most prestigious tournament.
"Plus, after a long league season, there has been a long break and everything is fresh. No suspensions. Players from injury are back.
"So Sundram is right to expect a great fight from the Malaysian teams."
Azraai singled out Sarawak's Kuching arena as the most intimidating ground to visit.
Alberts thinks the description of Kuching as a hostile place to play in is wrong.
Flares and water bottles were hurled onto the pitch by sections of the 40,000 Sarawak fans who watched the LionsXII win 1-0 there in an MSL match last year.
"I'm not too sure what some people mean about the atmosphere at our stadium," said the Dutchman, who blamed last year's incident on poor organisation rather than the aggression of the home fans.
"Our fans are very well behaved and I've been to more hostile environments around Malaysia.
"Maybe they (other coaches) are talking about the fantastic support the fans give us."
Perak struggled with injuries for most of their season, but peaked towards the end and secured impressive results, dominating the LionsXII in a 1-1 draw while beating the likes of ATM FA and Pahang.
Said Azraai: "I only had my full team for our final few MSL games and we only lost once, against (Malaysian FA Cup champions) Kelantan, even though we dominated possession.
"And I think we've improved since then."
Alberts' Sarawak side have not let up in their preparations.
They are currently in Kuala Lumpur playing a series of friendlies. They are one of the few Malaysian teams that continue to train in the afternoon in the Ramadan fasting month.
"Singapore are unbeaten at home all season, and we are the only unbeaten Malaysian team all season," said Alberts, whose side won 18 and drew four of their 22 MPL games.
"There's a difference between being the MSL champs and the MPL champs, but I'm sure it'll be very tight.
"We haven't been too consistent in terms of performances this season but we have been consistent in terms of results, so we are full of confidence."
He Is a firm believer in the old adage "anything is possible", and cited his own experience more than 20 years ago as an example.
"When I was coach of Kedah in 1992, we went all the way to the final of the Malaysia Cup as second division champions," he recalled.
"Many teams underestimated us that year because of our status as a second-tier team, and they didn't know as much about us as we did about them.
"So maybe that could work to Sarawak's advantage this year. We'll see."
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