Izwan key to LionsXII hopes of reaching final
Goalkeeper will be key if LionsXII are to stop Terengganu's threats Rangel and Lopez
REPORTING FROM KUALA TERENGGANU
SEMI-FINAL, SECOND LEG
TERENGGANU v LIONSXII
(Tonight, 8.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
- LionsXII lead 2-1 from first leg
There were laughs aplenty at the Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium during the LionsXII's training session yesterday afternoon.
Team spirit was high, as coach Fandi Ahmad and his assistant Nazri Nasir joined the 18 players in a game of "monkey" ahead of tonight's Malaysian FA Cup semi-final, second-leg clash against Terengganu.
On the other side of the pitch, between the goalposts, loomed a more serious atmosphere.
Goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud practised stopping penalties and close-range shots with goalkeeping coach Lee Bee Seng.
Every now and then, the 24-year-old custodian would gaze up at the empty stands of the new 50,000-seater stadium, as if imagining what tonight's atmosphere would be like.
The usually good-humoured Izwan never smiled and wore just a serious, focused expression as he performed his shot-stopping and ball-handling drills.
The Singapore international has always thrived in a big-game, big-crowd environment - and he's hoping the stadium will be packed tonight.
"Big crowds motivate me," he told The New Paper after the 60-minute session.
"There will be a lot of pressure, from the fans and the Terengganu team.
"But my defence and I will handle it well."
The LionsXII will carry a slender 2-1 advantage into the encounter, and the prize is a place in the May 23 final at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
If they are to reach the summit, Izwan will have to give an encore of the performance he displayed at home against Johor Darul Ta'zim last month.
The LionsXII drew 0-0 then at the Jalan Besar Stadium, thanks to their heroic goalkeeper who made several outstanding saves.
"The JDT game is a thing of the past but, of course, I go into every game aiming to keep a clean sheet," Izwan said.
"This is such an important game; everyone will need to be at his best."
Fandi didn't speak to Izwan on the pitch yesterday, but only because he knew his No. 1 was ready for the task ahead.
Communication, he said, will be key as his charges look to quell the threat of Terengganu striker Paulo Rangel and playmaker Gustavo Lopez.
"Izwan has improved in his focus and communication at the back, and that's what we will need against Terengganu," Fandi said.
"He will be important for us, but we also need to close down Terengganu's passing before they can test our goalkeeper.
"Just as crucial will be our two central midfielders Safuwan (Baharudin) and Izzdin (Shafiq)."
The LionsXII will be without winger Faris Ramli, who is with the Singapore Under-23s in Japan preparing for the South-east Asia Games.
In his absence, Nazrul Nazari will push up to the right wing, with Raihan Rahman passed fit to start at fullback.
Gabriel Quak will occupy the left wing, while Khairul Amri and Khairul Nizam will provide the attacking thrust from the middle.
"I'm very confident, and I've told the boys to play without added pressure," Fandi said.
"The pressure should not be on us, because we have a one-goal lead.
"We just need to be tight at the back, and be ready to counter-attack as much as possible."
- Probable LionsXII line-up: Izwan Mahbud, Raihan Rahman, Zulfahmi Arifin, Madhu Mohana, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Izzdin Shafiq, Safuwan Baharudin, Khairul Amri, Gabriel Quak, Nazrul Nazari, Khairul Nizam.
Turtles to go on all-out attack
HITMAN: Paulo Rangel (above) will be central to Terengganu’s attacking plans. TNP FILE PHOTO
They say attack is the best form of defence.
When Terengganu take on the LionsXII in the second leg of their Malaysian FA Cup semi-final at the Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium tonight, Turtles head coach Abdul Rahman Ibrahim would have drummed that adage into his charges.
Well aware that his men will be up against a LionsXII side who will soak and strike from the first whistle, Abdul Rahman will be plotting to overturn a 2-1 deficit from last week's first leg at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
So, it came as no surprise when the 69-year-old's first words to The New Paper was "all-out attack".
"I think this match is going to be quite a spectacle," said Abdul Rahman.
"It's finely balanced at 2-1. We're chasing a result, and the LionsXII know that if we get a goal back, they will have to strike back.
"So that's what makes it such a must-watch match. You can bet that my team will adopt a strictly gungho approach. It's going to be a very open game, I can guarantee you that."
The veteran coach, who is into his third stint as coach of the north-eastern state (1983-1984 and 1998), is set to have main striker Paulo Rangel back after suspension.
He made no qualms about how vital the Brazilian hitman - top scorer of the Malaysian Super League last season - will be to the cause.
"Rangel is our top striker. He has the height, strength and power to pose problems for the LionsXII defenders. That's why he's going to be central to everything we do," said the coach.
"Apart from him, we have our Canada international Issei (Nakajima-Farran). But he's about 80 per cent fit, so he will likely start on the bench."
Another factor that could determine which way the tie swings tonight is the venue.
The 50-000-seater Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium will open its doors for the first time since two separate incidents of collapsing roofs in 2009 and 2013.
Terengganu had previously been playing in the 15,000-capacity Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah Stadium, and Abdul Rahman feels that his side won't have the same homeground advantage as before.
He said: "We've trained here only five times over the past three or four weeks. That's not very ideal for preparations.
"We haven't familiarised ourselves with the surroundings yet, but that will be good for football, because it's going to be 50-50 tomorrow.
"Plus, it's going to be a sold-out game."
- ALI KASIM