Zainal: Sorry Fandi, I want to win too
PAHANG v LIONSXII
(Tonight, 8.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 205 & 76.25MHz)
They embraced like brothers in the centre of the pitch at the Darulmakmur Stadium yesterday.
But there will be no room for sentiment when Zainal Abidin Hassan's Pahang FA host a LionsXII coached by his good friend Fandi Ahmad in their Malaysia Cup Group A clash tonight.
The two were teammates in 1991 and 1992 for Pahang, when the Tok Gajah won the Malaysian Super League (then known as Semi-Pro League Division One), the Malaysia Cup and the Malaysian Charity Shield.
They also crossed swords numerous times in the 1980s and 1990s as chief goal-getters for their national teams.
Zainal is aware of the pressure Fandi has had to deal with after a poor Malaysian Super League (MSL) season saw the LionsXII finish a dismal seventh, just 12 months after V Sundramoorthy led them to the title.
DO OR DIE
He also knows that anything less than a win for the Singapore side would mean curtains for them in this year's Malaysia Cup.
But the 52-year-old said: "Of course, it's always nice to see Fandi, and it has been a few times now we've led teams against each other.
"There's no question about it: When we're up against each other, we're both professionals and want to win.
"This is my bread and butter after all, and I can assure you, we'll go all out for the points we need to progress to the quarter-finals.
"Yes, we're top of Group A at the moment, but we're not in there (in the knockout stage) yet. I don't even care if we win the group or finish second. There's nowhere to hide in the Malaysia Cup and all teams are tough. I just want to get us there."
If yesterday's Possibles-versus-Probables training match was any indication, Zainal looks set to field all his big guns.
Former Queens Park Rangers defenders Damion Stewart and Zesh Rehman will marshall the backline.
Lightning-quick winger R Gopinathan will look to torment the LionsXII fullbacks. And the monstrous Nigerian striker Dickson Nwakaeme will lead the Elephants' attack.
While he knows a win over the LionsXII will heap even more pressure on Fandi, Zainal said that the critics should cut the former Singapore skipper some slack.
He said: "I've coached young players myself during my time as Malaysia's Under-17 coach and, for me, the only way a coach of such a team should be judged is by how many players he helps develop to first-team football.
"Definitely not by results, especially in Fandi's case, as the MSL is a very tough senior league to play in.
"People point to how Sundram did well last season but he had three or four senior players like Hariss Harun, Shahril Ishak and Baihakki Khaizan to guide the youngsters all the way from the start. Fandi didn't."
When TNP asked Zainal if he felt Fandi had done a good job developing the LionsXII youngsters since taking over at the start of the year, the former Malaysia international nodded his head.
Asked to name any LionsXII players who had caught his eye, he said: "Not just one or two, but quite a number. This year, I've been impressed by players like Zulfahmi (Arifin) and the No. 7 (Gabriel Quak), whom I didn't see last year. The No. 17 (Faris Ramli) has also done well.
"And players like Safuwan (Baharudin) and Izwan (Mahbud), of course, also have real quality."
Zainal added: "I'm not sure about issues like National Service that Fandi has had to deal with as a coach. But I'm sure if you can keep a few of these young boys together and give him time, he can mould them into a real force."
TODAY'S OTHER FIXTURES
- JDT II v Felda
- Penang v Kelantan
- ATM FA v JDT
Khairul's hungry for goals
Poor Khairul Nizam.
It seems that even when his troublesome left knee doesn't give him any problems, the LionsXII striker is never 100 per cent free from injury.
As he shook hands with this reporter yesterday, he winced in agony.
"My hands, lah," he said with a sheepish smile, before explaining how he grazed his hands after running into the advertising hoardings in the match against Johor Darul Ta'zim II on Tuesday.
The 23-year-old (above) was a surprise starter against JDT II, and needed just 36 seconds to set up teammate Hafiz Abu Sujad for the opening goal in the 2-2 draw in the Malaysia Cup Group A tie.
Short of match fitness, he was substituted at half-time, but Khairul is hungry for more action in tonight's win-or-bust match against Pahang at the Darulmakmur Stadium in Kuantan.
Anything less than a win over the Malaysia FA Cup holders, will see the LionsXII crash out.
"It feels great to be back and I'm so happy coach Fandi had the confidence and trust in me to field me from the start (against JDT II), after being out for so long," said Nizam.
"I'm happy I got to help Hafiz score, but I badly want a goal for myself.
"Since I started training again, I've just been trying to think positively and tell myself I want to show what I can do - to the national coach, to everyone."
A series of injuries to his left knee has seen him miss about 18 months of football in the last two years, but he is hoping that his injury jinx is now behind him. He is not alone.
Said LionsXII assistant coach Nazri Nasir: "When Fandi and I watched him against JDT II, we told ourselves, 'That's what we have missed going forward all season'.
"We didn't have a striker up front who can hold the ball, and bring the other players into the game.
"Our other strikers have been working very hard, too, but they prefer the ball at their feet and facing goal. Nizam can play with his back to goal."
Nazri added: "He did well against JDT II, but there's still room for improvement, and we want him to be more of a goal threat.
"He's still young and, with the guidance of a former top striker like Fandi, I hope he can take his game to the next level. But we don't want to expect too much from him after just one game."
Nizam, though, is anxious to lead the line and make up for lost time.
"It feels good to be needed by the team," he said. "This Pahang game is a really important one and I would love to help the team by getting on the scoresheet."
- SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ