LionsXII to keep it safe with Baihakki-Safuwan pairing
You don't hear that a lot from LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad, who adopted an attacking philosophy for the Malaysian Super League (MSL) season.
But, with South-east Asia's best centre-back pairing of Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin set to reassert themselves at the heart of the LionsXII defence, the Singapore outfit will look to keep it tight at the back when they open their Malaysia Cup campaign against Felda United in a Group A clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday.
The 52-year-old coach had deployed Safuwan in midfield against Felda on a couple of occasions earlier in the year in the MSL in an effort to boost the attack, but, speaking to The New Paper yesterday, Fandi said: "It's the first game of our Malaysia Cup campaign, we need to play it safe because it is important we get a good result at home to kick off the group stages."
He also revealed that goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, who is nursing a hamstring problem, should be fit to start against FA Cup runners-up Felda.
Izwan, Baihakki and Safuwan were vital in helping the LionsXII win the MSL last year, and they were also key members of Singapore's triumphant 2012 Suzuki Cup side.
"They have been mainstays of the national team and, now that Baihakki has rejoined us from Johor Darul Ta'zim, we are looking to reunite the best defensive partnership in this region.
"They played together in the recent national team training tour in Austria and did well in the three friendly matches there.
"In terms of physique, they couldn't keep up with the Europeans for the full 90 minutes, but they will be tough to beat in South-east Asia.
"Felda have two dangerous attackers in Edward Wilson and Zah Rahan Krangar, and we will need experienced defenders to close down."
LionsXII vice-captain Safuwan is looking forward to recreating his resolute partnership with Baihakki, as he targets a spot in the final.
A much-cherished Malaysia Cup final has eluded the LionsXII over the last two years after heart-breaking defeats by ATM FA in the semi-finals in 2012 and in the quarter-finals last year.
Safuwan, 22, said: "It feels good to be reunited with Baihakki and perhaps this could be for the good of our club in the Malaysia Cup.
"I have not settled down in one position this season, although I don't find it a problem to play in defence or midfield.
"I do hope to settle down in one position, though, because we need to build up the chemistry, whether in defence or midfield."
The LionsXII have not enjoyed an ideal preparation for the Malaysia Cup, with 12 players called up for the training tour to Austria last month as well as a last-minute friendly against Bahrain's Asian Games team last week.
Despite a one-month break after the MSL season, the LionsXII have trained together for the Malaysia Cup only since Friday.
The good news is Fandi finally has options in central midfield following the return to fitness of skipper Isa Halim after surgery.
Fandi added: "Some of the players who did not travel are a bit rusty so we will work on that these few days, when we will also centralise them for team bonding.
"Isa's fitness is getting better and he is looking sharp in training.
"I also have Zulfahmi (Arifin) and Raihan (Rahman) as options, although Firdaus (Kasman) has an exam on matchday, so we'll see.
"It's been a long break and we can't wait to start playing, and we hope the fans will continue to come to Jalan Besar to support us in the Malaysia Cup."