Safuwan gamble backfires

Safuwan gamble backfires
LionsXII's Safuwan Baharudin (right) challenging Sarawak defender Mafry Balang in an aerial duel. Safawan failed to impress as an auxiliary forward and his absence in defence left huge gaps at the back.

SINGAPORE - Outplayed, outgunned and, ultimately, outclassed. Not even the gamble to hand their leading centre- back a more attacking role was enough for the LionsXII on Saturday's night, as they fell 1-3 to Sarawak.

It was the defending Malaysian Super League champions' second defeat on the trot and third overall this term - as many as they lost all of last season.

In an effort to add some punch to his side's attack, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad switched centre-back Safuwan Baharudin to an attacking midfield berth behind striker Khairul Amri.

But the audacious move failed to pay off, with the 22-year-old Singapore international struggling to make an impact up front as the backline looked fragile in his absence.

The Singapore outfit's defence had been in the spotlight after two lapses in concentration resulted in a 1-2 home loss to Kelantan in their last MSL outing.

And they were caught cold once again in the 16th minute.

A long Sarawak throw from the left was flicked on by Junior Eldstal and winger S. Chanturu made the most of some static LionsXII defending to head home at the far post.

It was just reward for the hosts who, cheered on by a 20,000-strong crowd at the Sarawak Stadium, made a storming start that forced Faritz Hameed, Afiq Yunos and Madhu Mohana into goal-saving challenges.

But, against the run of play, Fandi's side managed to draw level through a header by the unlikeliest of candidates.

Faritz's 36th-minute cross from the right was punched away by goalkeeper Sani Anuar Kamsani, only for Nazrul Ahmad Nazari - the shortest player on the pitch at 1.65m - to send the ball into an unguarded net with a header.

But that was as good as it got for the LionsXII on a wet evening when they were clearly second-best to the hosts.

The pacy Chanturu, who was a constant threat in wide areas, restored his side's lead just four minutes later when he latched onto Rasyid Aya's through ball to beat Izwan Mahbud with a low shot.

And Rasyid himself completed the scoring in the 76th minute as the LionsXII defence was caught out by another through pass, the 23-year-old confidently fired past Izwan to extinguish the visitors' hopes of mounting a late comeback.

Perhaps even more worrying for Fandi is that on Saturday's match had few positives.

Although the Safuwan-Amri partnership offered glimpses of hope - their link-up play was at times delightful to watch - they failed to trouble the Sarawak defence. Even when Safuwan managed to get behind the Sarawak backline and square a delightful ball for substitute Khairul Nizam, the striker somehow missed from metres out, with an open goal at his mercy.

The new centre-back partnership of Afiq Yunos and Madhu looked shaky on Saturday, with neither able to cope with Sarawak's long balls.

Said Fandi of the three goals his side conceded: "Miscommunication and out of position. We need more discipline in terms of defending."

But he refused to acknowledge that his gamble to play Safuwan failed.

"I don't think so," he said when asked if the move backfired. "It's a gamble that we had to take.

"I'd rather go down fighting than be conservative. You can say what you want, it's no problem.

"I take the blame for it."


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