LionsXII counting on Faris
LIONSXII v JOHOR DARUL TA'ZIM II
(Tonight, 7.15pm, StarHub TV Ch 205 & 76.25MHz)
In what has been a poor season for the LionsXII, there has been at least one bright spark that has on occasion brought the Singapore team's fans to the edge of their seats.
Fleet-footed winger Faris Ramli has burned some defenders down the flanks, and where once he was often criticised for a lack of finishing, Faris has also improved with his goalscoring this year.
He is their second topscorer with six strikes (one behind injured striker Khairul Amri), which is five more compared to last season.
In Amri's absence and with the team's other strikers appearing goal-shy - Sufian Anuar has four goals but Shahfiq Ghani, Syafiq Zainal and Khairul Nizam have not scored - most of the attention will be on Faris and whether he can help salvage a desperate season with a star turn against Johor Darul Ta'zim II in a crucial Group A clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium tonight.
"It's always good to have a bit of pressure to keep you on your toes," said Faris, who is relishing the challenge.
"We all understand the position we are in now. We cannot afford to make a mistake, and we have to take any chance that comes our way.
"The three teams in our group (Pahang, Felda United and JDT II) are beatable and, in the first three games, there were always opportunities for us to beat them.
"But, as we have found out, if we don't score, sometimes the opponents can be under-performing and yet score with the few chances they have and take all three points."
After a draw and two losses, the LionsXII face a must-win home game tonight, if they want to keep their Malaysia Cup quarter-final hopes alive.
Faris, 22, defended coach Fandi Ahmad and credited the former striker for his increased output of goals.
Where once he would be more likely put in a cross from the flanks, Faris has also mixed it up by cutting in and taking more shots, as instructed by Fandi.
"He taught me to be more composed in front of goal and, after training, he would coach me one-on-one on finishing and decision-making," said Faris.
"What more could I ask for than learn from the best?
"Pre-season, he set me a target of eight goals, which was more than some strikers, and this faith and belief in me, as well as his advice, have lifted me to a new level."
Fandi will hope that Faris can hit the eight-goal target with two more strikes tonight, and will also be keeping his fingers crossed that the winger stays clear of injury.
The full-time national serviceman is also a key player for his unit, and there have been times when he has missed crucial LionsXII training sessions.
Two weeks ago, he played five matches in seven days - two for the LionsXII, two for his unit, and one for the Singapore Selection side against Juventus.
"It's tough and it does bother me because I have a groin injury that feels like it's coming back ever since the 0-0 draw with Felda United, which I played on the same day as a match for my unit," said Faris.
"As much as I want to do the country proud with the LionsXII and represent my unit, I also need rest.
"This is where I must thank the physio and the backroom staff for their help, advice and understanding, and I really want to do well to repay them."
The 1.68-metre tall winger will draw from last year's experience to inspire his team to pull off a Houdini-esque escape.
"Last year, we also collected one point from our first three games, but we won our last three to qualify for the last eight," said Faris.
"We have to pick ourselves up, play as a team and take our chances.
"It's up to us to ensure we don't look back at the Malaysia Cup with regret."
- PROBABLE LIONSXII LINE-UP: Izwan Mahbud, Madhu Mohana, Safuwan Baharudin, Afiq Yunos, Shakir Hamzah, Faris Ramli, Isa Halim, Raihan Rahman, Zulfahmi Arifin, Faris Ramli, Sufian Anuar
- Felda v Pahang
- Johor DT v Penang
- Kelantan v ATM
- Kedah v Sarawak
- Perak v Terengganu
- Selangor v Sime Darby
- T-Team v PDRM
Nazri's tough words for midfielders
As a former midfield general, it must be hard for LionsXII assistant coach Nazri Nasir to watch the team's central midfielders struggle to make an impact this year.
In his heyday in the 90s, former national captain Nazri was known not just as a combative midfielder who broke up attacks.
He also contributed vital assists for both club and country.
After a poor defence of their Malaysian Super League crown, the LionsXII have continued to struggle in this season's Malaysia Cup. Nazri has urged his midfielders to be more adventurous and asked them to trust their creative instincts, ahead of tonight's crucial Group A match against Johor Darul Ta'zim II at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Speaking to The New Paper yesterday, the 43-year-old said: "A central midfielder's job is not just shielding and sitting. There's also initiative, reading, communication through words or eye contact and quick thinking. There are both technical and tactical components.
"We defend well. But, in attack, we need players who dare to take the calculated risk in the opponents' half, and to take shots from outside the box.
"We need our midfielders to support our striker, anticipate something to happen, go for the second ball, which I don't see much of."
Captain Isa Halim has been substituted three out of four times since coming back from a heel injury.
Zulfahmi Arifin has bags of talent and a cultured left foot, but he hasn't been consistent in the engine room.
"Isa is not 100 per cent fit and sometimes he's subbed out for tactical reasons because we need to get forward more," explained Nazri.
"As for Zul, it's not enough just to give the diagonal ball. I keep telling him he has a good shot but he's not creating enough space to shoot."
With the team anchored to the bottom with just one point from three games, coach Fandi Ahmad has said that the LionsXII face three finals in their remaining group games, starting tonight against JDT II, followed by their visits to Pahang and Felda United.
The goal remains a place in the top two and a spot in the last eight, and Nazri said: "We owe it to our fans. I tell the boys and they know the level JDT II play at, and I ask them whether they have given enough.
"This is their livelihood, they have to believe in themselves. We give them everything they need in training and support. It's up to them now."
- DAVID LEE
Two friendlies for Lions
Singapore will take on Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea in upcoming "A" international friendlies next month and October, according to Fifa.
Papua New Guinea, 200th in the Fifa rankings, will have a training tour in Singapore from Sept 2 to 14, and have requested for a friendly with the Lions - Fifa-ranked 152 - on Sept 6.
The Lions will then take on Hong Kong - Fifa-ranked 161 - on Sept 9 at home before the away match on Oct 10.
It is believed that the home matches will be held at the Hougang Stadium as the pitch at the National Stadium continues to undergo maintenance work.
- DAVID LEE