LionsXII buoyant ahead of Terengganu match
Players enjoy 'fun' game as Fandi urges his men to embrace tonight's challenge
TERENGGANU v LIONSXII
(Tonight, 8.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
Behind giggles floating across from the adjacent hockey pitch, where a group of women were playing hockey, laughter rang out at the Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium yesterday.
Of the six pitches visible at the huge facility, jokes and comic routines would have been least expected at the one where Fandi Ahmad stood, arms folded across his chest.
His LionsXII face the high-scoring home side, Terengganu, in the final Group A Malaysia Cup fixture tonight, and many in the squad will also line up for Singapore against Asian giants Japan in a World Cup qualifier on Nov 12 at the National Stadium.
If the LionsXII fall by two goals tonight, and Kedah beat Johor Darul Ta'zim II in the group's other fixture, Fandi's side would be booted out at the opening stage of the competition for the second successive year.
If there was any pressure piled onto their red-and-black clad shoulders, they were not showing it yesterday - at all.
Defender Shakir Hamzah took his turn at being goalkeeper for a while, failing to save Safuwan Baharudin's header, while custodian Izwan Mahbud sprinted off his goal, zipping down the left wing, as the squad played a two-sided game across the width of the pitch.
He, too, did not enjoy much success, and was sent scrambling back to defend his own goal, much to the merriment of his teammates.
Safuwan insisted the atmosphere was vital for the job at hand.
"I think today's training (Fandi) wanted to take the heat off our shoulders, and it's important, because if he pressed more on us, we'll feel it even more," said the 24-year-old.
"But don't be mistaken, we're not complacent.
"We know that Terengganu are a high-scoring team on their own ground and that we've conceded a lot of goals against them.
"But tomorrow, the score that's in our head is 0-0."
The two teams have faced off five times in competitive fixtures this year, with Terengganu having won both their home games, scoring seven goals in the process.
Safuwan, a mainstay for the LionsXII and the national team, admits next week's encounter with Japan has been on his mind, but he knows that a good showing here will filter through to the international arena.
"LionsXII is a stepping stone to the national team, and the core of us here must be able to step up (tonight)," he said.
"The occasion is similar to (what we expect against) Japan, and it could be a match that will help us gauge how we cope."
Fandi agreed, urging his players to dig deep in the face of what he believes will be a Terengganu onslaught.
"This will be a character-building match, and it will be an individual test for the players, to see if they can handle it, because if they can, they will be able to play better in international matches, for sure," said the former Singapore captain.
"If we do well in this stadium, with hostile fans, under this pressure, I'm sure it will carry through to the next game against Japan.
"But it is important that, for now, we focus only on this game, and be positive."
Terengganu beat the LionsXII 3-2 in the second leg of the FA Cup semi-final here in May, but were still knocked out on the away-goals rule, after falling 2-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
The frenetic match saw a Terengganu goal disallowed. In the heat of the ensuing exchanges, two players from the home side were dismissed.
The LionsXII went on to win the FA Cup, and the second leg of the semi-final will long be remembered by Safuwan.
"That match was intense, the only thing on our minds then was to qualify for the final and I think some of us got carried away by the occasion - the referee's decision could have easily gone against us," he said.
"I hope that we play without fear, and I'm confident that we can, I've seen us play much better games than that semi-final."
Fandi has also seen his players grow into a team that can hold out in the most dire of situations, but, this time, he wants more.
"I want to see them put that (big match) experience to use, we cannot just defend," said the 53-year-old.
"We must attack and score goals, if we sit back and hope that they don't score, we will collapse."
- LIONSXII PROBABLE LINE-UP: Izwan Mahbud, Nazrul Nazari, Madhu Mohana, Zulfahmi Arifin, Shakir Hamzah, Izzdin Shafiq, Shahdan Sulaiman, Faris Ramli, Safuwan Baharudin, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Khairul Amri