LionsXII can retain title: Fandi

(From left) Assistant coach Nazri Nasir, vice-captain Safuwan Baharudin, captain Isa Halim, winger Gabriel Quak and coach Fandi Ahmad

SINGAPORE - It is the proverbial "poisoned chalice" coaching job - taking over the reigning champions but without the services of the key players who spearheaded the successful title charge.

But Fandi Ahmad is relishing the challenge of leading the LionsXII team in their Malaysian Super League (MSL) title defence, which begins on Friday with an away clash against Pahang. "We are the defending champions and we hope to achieve our target, which is the top three," said Fandi, who took over as head coach last month after V. Sundramoorthy resigned in October.

"It's going to be very, very difficult but I still believe we can retain the title." Even before he assumed the coaching mantle, he had lost the vital spine of the league-winning team - Baihakki Khaizan in defence, Hariss Harun in midfield and Shahril Ishak in attack. Instead, he is left with a youthful team - with an average age of 22.5 - and six MSL debutants in the 24-man squad.

Nevertheless, the 51-year-old thinks that retaining the league title is not beyond his new-look LionsXII. He said: "I believe in the players. Even though they are young, they showed a lot of character, especially during our training trip in Indonesia."

While old heads such as captain Isa Halim, Khairul Amri and Sufian Anuar will be expected to lead the team, the departure of the first XI regulars represents a chance for younger players on the fringes of the first team to make the step up.

The likes of Gabriel Quak, Hafiz Sujad and Faris Ramli - who made 27 starts between them in the 12-team MSL last season - are expected to help fill in for captain Shahril, who was the team's top scorer with eight goals, and Hariss, who anchored the midfield with his lung-bursting displays.

Said Fandi: "My job is not only about winning, but also about youth, about creating more players for the national team, and helping players like (Khairul) Nizam, Gabriel, Hafiz and Faris to the next level. "They are talented players but haven't realised their true potential."

With the former national captain so willing to give his youngsters opportunities to shine, it is no wonder that the players are pumped up to show what they can do in the upcoming season. Winger Quak, who has been set a five-goal target by Fandi, said: "There's definitely pressure but I'm more excited about taking on a bigger role and playing more games.

"The younger players will also be looking at us so we have to lead by example. "When it's time to be serious, like during training or tactical sessions, we have to be less playful and more focused now."

Managing this bunch of eager youngsters represents a huge departure for Fandi, after his ill-fated coaching stint at the star-studded, expensively-assembled Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) last season.

Despite big names such as former Spain international striker Daniel Guiza, former Lazio midfielder Simone del Nero and a host of Malaysian internationals, JDT failed to land a single trophy and Fandi suffered the ignominy of being demoted from his head coach position before leaving the club.

Having put that chapter behind him, he is fully focused on developing his young players to their full potential. He said: "I've always liked working with and developing youth players. It's challenging but young players are very disciplined. "And they listen, which is very important, and they will go out fighting in every game."

Nevertheless, inheriting a team known for their stingy defence last season (they conceded only 15 goals in 22 MSL games) poses a problem for Fandi in improving his team's finishing. "In our three friendlies in Indonesia, we created 10 to 11 chances every game but could only score three goals, so that's our soft side.

"Hopefully, we can polish that up in the next few days," he said. Against Pahang in Kuantan, Fandi is also hoping for a little luck from an unlikely source - his assistant, former Singapore national team-mate Nazri Nasir. He quipped: "It's Nazri's birthday so, hopefully, that gives us some luck against a very strong Pahang side."

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