SINGAPORE - Almost always well-coiffed, even after bruising football battles, Isa Halim stepped off the field at Geylang Lorong 12 on Monday with his hair in disarray.
The LionsXII were crowned champions of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) only three weeks ago but, for 90 minutes on Monday night, they trained like a team who were being readied to prove a point.
"We were just 10 seconds away from making the Malaysia Cup final last year, and words can't explain what I felt when we lost to ATM FA (in the semi-finals). It really affected me," said LionsXII coach V Sundramoorthy, after a training session that saw him barking at his charges like a man possessed.
Monday was the first time the majority of the LionsXII - six of the 30-man squad were given permission to miss Monday night's training session - came together since their final game of the MSL season on July 6, and Sundram was not about to ease his men into their routine.
"We just won the league and complacency is definitely something we have to fight against, and it's never too early to start working hard," he told The New Paper.
The 2012 LionsXII were headed to the Malaysia Cup final until ATM's Marlon James equalised in the dying minutes of their second leg semi-final clash in Kuala Lumpur.
This year's Malaysia Cup kicks off on Aug 20, with the draw for the group stages scheduled in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, and the LionsXII will strive to emulate the 1994 Singapore team and win the double.
"We will be labelled as favourites and knowing Malaysian teams, they'll work their socks off to beat us, so we'll work as hard as we can during this fasting month to keep ourselves fit and sharp," said Sundram.
"I told the boys that we must put the MSL victory aside, go back to the drawing board and work hard to achieve the next target, because the Malaysia Cup is a whole different ball game."
With only one training session per day in view of Muslim players fasting during the month of Ramadan, Sundram and his coaching team have mapped out high-intensity workouts for the LionsXII.
The 47-year-old LionsXII coach, who won the Malaysia Cup in 1990 when he starred for Kedah, said: "We cannot take any team lightly in this competition. "The Malaysia Cup has a lot of history, and all teams will want to do well.
"From Kelantan to Johor Darul Takzim, Selangor and ATM, they are all contenders.
And you cannot discount the likes of Terengganu and Perak. They are teams I think will be dark horses."
The Malaysia Cup will see 16 teams divided into four groups, with the top two from each moving into the quarter-finals.
The quarter-finals and semi-finals will be played over two legs, before the Oct 26 final at the Bukit Jalil Stadium.
"It will come down to which team actually turn up to play on the day of the match, but if you ask me to pick out the most dangerous team, I'll have to go with Selangor," said Sundram.
"They have a very talented squad of very good players who can raise their game when it counts, and that team are one who are very balanced. They will be serious contenders."
The Singapore national team - largely populated by LionsXII players - will host Oman in an Asian Cup qualifier on Aug 14, less than a week before Sundram's outfit kick off their Malaysia Cup campaign on Aug 20.
But that will not derail preparations.
Said Sundram: "I will have the five days for final preparation before we play our first game, and that is why we have to put in a lot of hard work whenever we get the full team together."
And he has passed the message to his team, a mission statement of sorts as they attempt to go at least one better than last year.
"Malaysian teams see us as a Singapore team, and they will want to stop us from winning the Malaysia Cup," he said.
"We need to keep our feet on the ground, and just keep working hard."
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