Izwan Mahbud: Our defence will come good this year
He has owned the No. 1 shirt since the inception of the LionsXII in 2012, and is now the only consistent face in the Singapore side that are on the cusp of a fourth year in Malaysian football's domestic competitions.
The LionsXII kick off their campaign in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) on Saturday, when they host newly-promoted PDRM at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
With injuries to defenders Afiq Yunos and Faritz Hameed and the departure of star centre back Safuwan Baharudin to A-League side Melbourne City, there will be a new-look backline playing in front of Izwan.
Named as vice-captain by coach Fandi Ahmad, behind skipper Isa Halim, the goalkeeper is confident that, despite the constant chopping and changing, the LionsXII's defensive unit will come good this year.
"In the first two seasons, the defence was our strongest asset. We were quite unlucky last year, but we need to erase that memory and concentrate on what we have ahead of us this season," said Izwan.
The LionsXII entered the 2014 campaign as MSL champions, but conceded 27 goals in 21 league games en route to an eighth-placed finish, a far cry from the 15 in 22 games allowed in the title-winning year.
Fandi has declared that the target this year is to finish in the top three in the 12-team league.
Speaking to The New Paper earlier in the week, Fandi said: "Madhu Mohana and Afiq look like they will be the main defensive partnership this season, and they need to step up their game.
"This is an opportunity for them to shine."
But Afiq looks set to start the year on the sidelines after being hit by a gout attack, which probably means Madhu, who was often deployed at right back, will move into the middle, alongside new boy Wahyudi Wahid.
"It's going to be a long hard journey but, as the season goes on, I'm certain we'll come together. And that's important, to fight as a unit, for each other," said 24-year-old Izwan, who believes that the tools are available for the new defensive unit to excel.
"Throughout the years, we've always had speed in the backline and this year is no different, at least that's what I think."
"What will be important this year is communication and covering between the centre backs, that is key," he insisted, pointing to the ability of both Baihakki Khaizan (now at Johor Darul Ta'zim II) and Safuwan to read the game and provide cover for each other.
"That was one of the biggest strengths of the central-defensive partnership between Bai and Safuwan, but I think Madhu and Afiq can read the game too, and I'm sure that partnership will get better and better as the season goes on."
Izwan's role as vice-captain will see him take on more duties off the pitch, but his job between the sticks has not changed one bit - to keep the ball out of the net and be the springboard for attacks as often as possible.
"I've got to step up and take more responsibility this year and lead the younger players, but the only real target I've set for myself is to keep as many clean sheets as I can," he said.
While Izwan is predicting tough challenges ahead, the Singapore international believes a backline that stands tall and communicates with each other will surely get the fans talking.
He said: "Communication out on the pitch is absolutely key and like I've said before, we need to help each other."
"In the first two seasons, the defence was our strongest asset. We were quite unlucky last year, but we need to erase that memory and concentrate on what we have ahead of us this season."
— LionsXII goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud
THE BACKLINE OVER THE YEARS
- 2012 (Conceded 23 in 26 league games): Juma'at Jantan, Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin, Shaiful Esah
- 2013 (Conceded 15 in 22): Faritz Hameed, Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah
- 2014 (Conceded 27 in 21): Faritz Hameed, Afiq Yunos, Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah
* Baihakki returned during the mid-season transfer window from Johor Darul Ta'zim, replacing Afiq for most of the second half of the season, with Hafiz Abu Sujad (left back) and Madhu Mohana (right back) also regularly chalking up games.
- 2015 probable line-up: Faritz Hameed, Afiq Yunos, Madhu Mohana, Hafiz Abu Sujad