New Guards shield Lions

For all the talk by national head coach Bernd Stange about Singapore needing to play attractive football, it is the Lions' sturdy defence that has kept them alive in their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign so far.

And key to such solidity in the back line is a new central defensive partnership, forged in the cauldron of 57,533 fans baying for the Lions' blood in Japan's Saitama Stadium back in June.

While goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud earned the biggest plaudits for his slew of saves in the 0-0 World Cup qualifying draw, Baihakki Khaizan and Madhu Mohana - paired together partly because regular starter Safuwan Baharudin pulled out of the tie for personal reasons - were also key figures in a sterling defensive stand against mighty Japan.

The draw set the tone for Singapore's campaign so far.

In four Group E games, the Lions have kept three clean sheets and conceded just one goal in a 0-1 loss to Syria last month.

In their opening qualifier, a 4-0 win against Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Baihakki and Zulfahmi Arifin started. Only Japan, with four straight clean sheets, have a better defensive record.

It was a far cry from last year's dismal ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup campaign, which saw the Lions concede seven goals as they limped out of the group stage after three games.

Yesterday, Baihakki said the Japan match was the perfect boost the budding partnership needed.

The 31-year-old said: "Yes, it definitely boosted our confidence. It is not an easy thing to keep a world-class team like Japan from scoring.

"But it was not just the two of us, or even the four defenders. It was a team effort and every single player did his part, beginning with (striker Khairul) Amri up front."

LionsXII defender Madhu, who has eight caps, credits 119-cap Baihakki for helping him make the step up to international football.

The 24-year-old said: "He is one of the leaders of the team. He gives instructions and organises the defence well so I take his lead.

"He guides me on the field, telling me where to go and what to do, so it is very easy to play with someone as experienced as him."

Madhu added that their stint together with the LionsXII in 2012 helped in terms of understanding each other's style.

Strong central defensive partnerships usually see an aggressive stopper paired with a defender who sits further back to read the game.

Yet, Madhu and Baihakki have similar attributes.

They are both strong in the air, physical and love chasing opponents down and launching tackles.

But the partnership works because Madhu listens to the guidance from Baihakki. Said Madhu: "I take his lead. If he goes forward, I stay back and vice versa."

But there is room for improvement for the partnership. After all, Singapore were lucky not to concede during Thursday's 1-0 win over Afghanistan at the National Stadium as the visitors missed at least six good chances.

When Izwan was beaten on two occasions, Baihakki and right-back Nazrul Nazari rushed back in time to hack the ball off the line.

The veteran said: "We do not want to keep looking at the past. We will learn from the match but we are looking ahead to the match against Cambodia now."

Madhu added: "We will continue to work hard in training to improve ourselves as a defensive unit and as a team, and we hope to keep this record going."

For the rookie, this big break also represents an upturn of fortunes, after he was among the last to be culled from last year's AFF Suzuki Cup squad.

He said: "I am very happy that coach Bernd (Stange) has shown faith in me and picked me this year.

"I love playing for my country and definitely want to keep doing it for as long as I can."

He looks set to do that - as long as the shut-outs keep coming.

This article was first published on Oct 11, 2015.
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