(Faris Ramli 38, Zulfahmi Arifin 41)
JOHOR DARUL TA'ZIM 3
(Jorge Pereyra Diaz 43, 75, Luciano Figueroa 54)
Just a day after he railed against "dubious refereeing" decisions that have cost his team in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) this season, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad saw his men suffer another controversial call by the man in the middle.
In the 54th minute of the LionsXII's clash against Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) at the Jalan Besar Stadium last night, the hosts were leading 2-1 when the ball hit the chest of Afiq Yunos in the danger area, only for referee Nazmi Nasarudin to blow for a penalty.
TV replays clearly showed the ball coming off the chest of the LionsXII player, and how the referee could have spotted a hand-ball is anyone's guess, especially when he was looking at Afiq's back.
Poor Afiq even got booked for his trouble.
JDT top scorer Luciano Figueroa stepped up, and even though goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud denied him from the penalty spot, the rebound fell kindly to the Argentinian and he swept it home.
The heads of the LionsXII players dropped after that goal and they were eventually sunk by a 75th-minute goal by Argentina's Jorge Pereyra Diaz, who was the best player on the pitch.
Fandi, who gave a piece of his mind to the officials as they walked down the tunnel into the dressing room after the match, was livid. "You all saw it, I don't want to say anything," he said, in disgust.
"I can't believe football is like this now. The ball hits his (Afiq's) chest and it's a penalty.
"You write what you want. I felt the referee wasn't in a good position to make the call.
"We lost focus after that. I can't fault my players."
While a poor decision by the referee might have cost his team, last night's match, played out in front of 7,568 fans, summed up the LionsXII this season.
The quality of the hosts' two goals was breathtaking.
In the 38th minute, winger Faris Ramli showed a velvet touch to take Shakir Hamzah's pass and slip behind his marker S Subramaniam.
He then confidently fired into the roof of the net to hand his side the lead.
Three minutes later, most of the sellout crowd were in dreamland when Zulfahmi Arifin stepped up and fired in a stunning free-kick from all of 25 metres.
Carrying a groin injury, the midfielder had a difficult game but as always was a danger in dead-ball situations with his sweet left foot.
Said Fandi: "The quality of our goals was superb.
"These boys are young but they are improving individually with every game."
Just two minutes after Zulfahmi's goal, the LionsXII defence went to sleep.
A number of the hosts' players turned their backs to a JDT free-kick and switched off.
The quick-thinking Figueroa played a deft pass to Diaz, who had made a clever run into the penalty area, and he duly clipped a fine finish over the onrushing Izwan to pull a goal back just two minutes before half-time.
Shaking his head, Fandi said: "It was very, very frustrating to concede then.
"It was so near half-time and we should have just kicked the ball away. It's our mistake."
JDT coach Bojan Hodak said: "When you're 2-0 up, normally you close down the game, but we got an important goal before half-time.
"They should have been more compact."
After the referee's blunder in the 54th minute, the LionsXII players' heads started to drop.
And when Diaz coolly slotted home the winner in the 75th minute, it was game over.
Despite having a quarter of an hour - plus five minutes of added time - to find the equaliser, Fandi's men looked devoid of ideas and never really threatened to score a third goal.
Said Hodak: "The LionsXII couldn't last the pace in the last 30 minutes."
The Croat suggested the Singapore boys were too in awe of the star names in JDT's team, citing his midfield star Hariss Harun, who had a faultless game in the centre of midfield.
He said: "A lot of their (LionsXII's) young boys lost challenges to Hariss because they respect him too much.
"He won because of his name."
This article was published on May 21 in The New Paper.
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