LionsXII engine room in better shape now, says coach
ISA HALIM: Competition for places in midfield is so keen that even captain Isa Halim (above) is not taking his slot for granted.
IZZDIN SHAHFIQ: Returning after a season with Home United, Izzdin is hoping for a repeat of the 2013 MSL title-winning run.
FIRDAUS KASMAN: The midfielder is hoping to grab his opportunity while Shahdan Sulaiman is recovering from an ankle injury.
A football team is often compared to a sleek and efficient car.
Flashy rims, a slender body and a glossy coat of paint might look pretty on the outside, but what matters is what happens in the engine room.
That is where the LionsXII midfield can thrive this season, despite either failing to click into gear or missing a part or two last year.
Speaking to The New Paper, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad said: "The midfield is the most vital part of the team, because games are either won or lost there.
"We weren't up to scratch in that aspect last season, because there were injuries and departures, but the midfield is in better shape now."
Midfielders Isa Halim, 28, and Zulfahmi Arifin, 23, are confident that their limp and ineffective displays are consigned to the past, after some much-needed fine-tuning in the off-season.
Looking back at their poor 2014 Malaysia Super League (MSL) season, where they finished eighth out of 12 teams, two of the most vital cogs in the LionsXII's midfield have their minds set on making amends.
Captain and hardman Isa Halim, who played only eight games due to persistent ankle injuries, said: "Last season was a very bad one for everyone, particularly the midfield.
"We had to cope with the departures of Hariss (Harun) and Shahril (Ishak), who were the pillars of the team. Coach (Fandi Ahmad) also joined the team, so it was a period of transition.
"Personally, I feel that I let the team down, because I became captain but was unavailable most of the time through injury. This is the chance for us to make amends.
"Now that we've had a full year to adapt to one another, we'll be in a better position to compete."
Echoing that sentiment was playmaker Zulfahmi.
The former Courts Young Lions man was part of 2013's MSL-winning side, but he was a largely peripheral figure, playing only five games.
Last year, he was thrust into the big time, pulling the strings throughout 14 games.
But "The General", as he is known by his teammates for his ball control and vision, came under fire for his lacklustre displays - especially during Singapore's ill-fated AFF Suzuki Cup title defence last November.
He said: "When everything around you changes, you need time to adapt.
"We now fully understand the coach's style. I believe that we're stronger now and, personally, my heart is set on showing how important that I can be to this team.
"I'll be the man whom the team will rely on for that final pass, and I'll be up for it."
The midfield has largely remained the same, except for the additions of wideman Christopher van Huizen, from Tampines Rovers, and Izzdin Shafiq, who returns to the LionsXII fold after spending last season with Home United.
However, Shahdan Sulaiman, who is also back after two years with Tampines Rovers, will miss a chunk of the season due to a broken ankle suffered during the Suzuki Cup.
His absence has opened the door for the second-stringers.
Firdaus Kasman, who played 13 times last season, put in a shift whenever he was called upon, with his combative approach somewhat remedying Isa's absence.
"Shahdan's absence is a blow for the team, because he's a valuable player to any side," said the 27-year-old.
"But it gives an opportunity for players like myself to come in and show our worth."
Competition for places is so keen that even captain Isa Halim is not taking his slot for granted.
He said: "Everyone has put in a good effort throughout pre-season, so it's hard to pin down a definite first team.
"I might be team captain, but that doesn't come close to guaranteeing automatic selection. The competition for a middle spot will be intense, and that's very good for the team."
TONIGHT'S OTHER MATCHES
- Perak v Sime Darby
- Terengganu v Selangor
- ATM FA v Kelantan
- Felda United v Sarawak
(All at 8.45pm)