'No pressure' on LionsXII even as Cup exit looms

LionsXII football players

It was a sight that LionsXII coach V. Sundramoorthy is not accustomed to - his players sprawled on the pitch in despair, in the wake of another Malaysia Cup defeat. But even as their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals hang by a thread after Tuesday's 0-1 loss to Perak in Ipoh, there is a longer-term concern at the back of their coach's mind.

"Our objective is the SEA Games," reiterated Sundram, even as his position as the Games coach lies in doubt amid reports that he has agreed to take over at Negeri Sembilan in November.

Indeed, this year's LionsXII squad were assembled largely with December's SEA Games in mind, with the Republic targeting the final of the Under-23 competition in Myanmar. With the LionsXII rooted at the bottom of Group D, their Myanmar-bound players could be without a competitive fixture for more than two months, should the team be eliminated when the group stage ends on Sept 21.

Even so, Sundram kept the biennial event at the forefront of his squad selection against Perak, picking the relatively inexperienced Syafiq Zainal to lead the line ahead of established international Fazrul Nawaz.

"The boy is 22 and I wanted to give him the opportunity to play so that he can be ready for the SEA Games," he explained.

The only question is: How many more such chances can he afford to give?

After losing just three of their 22 matches en route to clinching the Malaysian Super League title last month, the LionsXII have only one point from their three Cup matches, losing twice and drawing once.

Tuesday's defeat extended their winless streak to four matches, a run that stretches back to their final MSL match on July 6. It is their longest drought since their inception last year.

Anything less than a win in Saturday's reverse fixture against Perak at the Jalan Besar Stadium could end the LionsXII's Cup hopes, but Sundram refuses to blame his struggling team.

"I don't see any pressure," he said.

"The boys have done well to win the MSL and we have to give them credit."

But more than keeping their Cup hopes alive, Saturday's match is about restoring self-belief, which - as these youngsters are now learning - can be an extremely fragile commodity.

"It's all about confidence," Sundram stressed. "We drew when we were supposed to win against Kedah, then we went to Sarawak and conceded a soft goal. "Then we again conceded a soft goal against Perak. "We were better in the latter stages of the first half and in the second half (against Perak) but, at the end of the day, you have to put the ball in the net. That's the bottom line."

With the LionsXII's backs against the wall, Sundram is expecting a much improved showing on Saturday.

"The boys will turn up and deliver, especially at Jalan Besar," he said. "They know how important this game is and I think they will turn the corner. "I just hope it's not too late."

fabiusc@sph.com.sg


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