Back to the future for the LionsXII
With confidence high, Fandi's men aim to climb league ladder
LIONSXII v ATM
(Jalan Besar Stadium, 9pm)
It's been almost a month since the LionsXII's intoxicating night out at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, when they defeated Kelantan 3-1 to lift the Malaysian FA Cup.
Tonight, Fandi Ahmad's men will return to bread-and-butter football in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) and the goal is to show they belong in the most important club competition across the Causeway.
The LionsXII take on second-from-bottom ATM at the Jalan Besar Stadium and have the opportunity to kick off the second half of their MSL campaign on a winning note.
Fandi's side are eighth in the 12-team standinds after 10 games but confidence is high in the camp, and not just because of the FA Cup triumph.
On Tuesday, Singapore's senior side held out Asian giants Japan in front of 57,533 fans at the Saitama Stadium 2002, in a World Cup qualifier that featured a number of LionsXII players.
Speaking to The New Paper after a training session at the Jalan Besar Stadium yesterday, Fandi said: "Now, it's all about the future, and what we accomplish from now on.
"The Cup final was a big moment for us, and I could tell the huge upturn in morale and confidence after that.
"Then came the result in Japan, and you can see during training how motivated the boys are.
"But we need to put all our focus into the league now, and aim for a good position when the season ends."
Eight LionsXII players started against the Japanese, with goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud the star and centre back Madhu Mohana also earning plaudits for his performance.
Madhu, 24, said: "All the players are in good shape.
"Morale is sky-high at the moment and we're very excited to get back to league action.
"I know that the FA Cup final was some time ago, but we can still use that experience as a way to spur us on for the remainder of the MSL season.
"Plus the match against Japan, we are in very good mood, and like we showed (on Tuesday), keeping a clean sheet is so valuable."
One player with a point to prove is Faris Ramli.
The flying winger had his wings clipped in the Singapore Under-23s' disastrous campaign at the SEA Games, as he struggled to replicate his club form.
"For me, personally, it's all about a shift in mindset and focus," said Faris.
"It's not the SEA Games anymore, and we need to be mentally prepared to focus on the MSL from now on.
"Plenty was expected of me at the SEA Games, but we didn't do very well. We faced criticism, but we take it all in and move forward.
"I'm just excited to return to playing with familiar faces, and senior players, and against ATM, it will be the start of something new.
"For me, and also the team, it's a new chapter.
"We just need one game to change everything."
LIONSXII PROBABLE LINE-UP
- Izwan Mahbud, Nazrul Nazari, Madhu Mohana, Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah, Gabriel Quak, Izzdin Shafiq, Zulfahmi Arifin, Faris Ramli, Khairul Nizam, Khairul Amri
- Kelantan v Sime Darby
- Sarawak FA vPerak
- FELDA v Selangor
- PDRM FA v Pahang
- Terengganu v Johor DT
After the SEA Games, a new football adventure
When it was announced in April that Courts Young Lions players Al-Qaasimy Rahman, Shakir Hamzah, Shahfiq Ghani and Safirul Sulaiman would link up with the LionsXII after the South-east Asia (SEA) Games, it raised some eyebrows.
After all, the Young Lions' preparations for the Games was in overdrive at the time, and many thought that the news would destabilise preparations.
Defender Shakir just wants to focus on his football, after all the negative headlines surrounding the entire SEA Games adventure.
Shakir is set to start at left back in place of a sick Hafiz Abu Sujad tonight in the Malaysian Super League clash with ATM at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
"It's nice to be back with the LionsXII," said the 22-year-old, who made the left flank his own with the side from 2012 to 2014, but left for the Young Lions at the start of this season.
"Hafiz has been a solid performer all season, and he's a good player who's made the left back spot his own so far.
"For me, this is the chance to put the past behind, and start afresh with the LionsXII, and most importantly, fight for my place."
Al-Qaasimy, 23, is probably the third-choice right back in the fold, behind Nazrul Nazari and Faritz Abdul Hameed, but the former Young Lions captain has no qualms about fighting for his place, and is also willing to play anywhere Fandi asks him to.
"There are reasons why coach Fandi brought us into the team," he said.
"I'm sure he knows what he wants from us.
"I admit, there were a few considerations before I decided to make the move, most importantly of all playing time, but I just want a new challenge.
"As a footballer, I can't stay stagnant.
"This is football. It's all based on merit."
Fandi was coy when asked for his thoughts about his four new faces.
"I don't know how much they're going to play. I can't give them any guarantees," he said.
"What I'm very happy about now is the depth that this team have. We now have the luxury of rotation, especially with it being the fasting month of Ramadan.
"If we're happy with how they perform, then of course, they'll get their chances."