Lions' Khairul Nizam injury-free and hungry for goals
Injury nightmare over, striker on form and ready to fire for Lions
SINGAPORE v MYANMAR
(Tomorrow, 7.45pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
He received a pass with his back to goal, spun round the defender marking him and in an instant, curled a beauty into the top corner, well beyond Izwan Mahbud's reach.
It may have just been a drill during a training session, but national striker Khairul Nizam's superb shot drew oohs and ahhs from his teammates, and even applause from Lions assistant coach and former goalscoring great, Fandi Ahmad.
As he jogged back to get in the queue with a smile, it looked like Nizam was enjoying his football once again.
Ahead of Singapore's international friendly with Myanmar at the Jalan Besar Stadium tomorrow night - after which the team will travel to neutral Iran for their final Group E 2018 World Cup/2019 Asian Cup qualifier against Afghanistan - the 24-year-old is ready to stake his claim and spearhead the Lions' attack in the absence of injured half-brother Khairul Amri.
Nizam, who has had to bounce back from a catalogue of injuries over the past three years which limited him to just 20 games between 2012 and 2014, has found form at the right time.
He featured 14 times in the Malaysian Super League for the LionsXII last season and scored three goals.
This season, he already has three goals to his name in four appearances for Home United in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League.
On the sidelines of yesterday's training session with the national team at the Geylang Field, Nizam told The New Paper: "I feel so much happier now.
"I can join training and play regularly in matches, things I haven't been able to do a lot in the past few years.
"Coach Philippe (Aw at Home United) has given me a chance and this has given me confidence to prove what I know I can do."
National coach Bernd Stange, who is set to leave his post after the Afghanistan game when his contract runs out in the middle of next month, said Nizam has enormous potential, as long as he improves his touch on the ball.
"I am happy Nizam is playing again," said Stange.
"He can be a shining talent for the future, but only if he works harder on his technical abilities.
"If he does that and can continue to be free from injury, he will be the main striker for the national team.
"He has almost everything a striker needs. He is a strong header of the ball, fast, and good in battles. But the ball is not his friend."
Stange will have to decide how to overcome the loss of Amri, who has netted five goals in his last 10 appearances for the Lions but is nursing a calf injury.
The former Hertha Berlin coach found himself in a similar predicament last November when his chief striker was ruled out of a qualifying double-header against Japan and Syria.
He plumped for Fazrul Nawaz against Japan, but replaced him at half-time with Sahil Suhaimi.
Both were ineffective against the mighty Samurai Blue, who ran out 3-0 winners.
Four days later against Syria, Stange started with defender-cum-midfielder Safuwan Baharudin upfront, but the Lions flopped in a 2-1 defeat.
Although he has not decided who will start against Myanmar, Stange said he was satisfied with the striking options at his disposal.
"For me, the situation is fine," he said.
"Fazrul, Sahil, Nizam and Amri are good enough choices for the national team for at least the next two years."
Nizam is chomping at the bit for his chance.
"The main thing when you get called up to the national team is that you need to be prepared," he said.
"If you're picked to play, you have to prove you deserve it and you have to make the spot yours.
"I am ready."
He has almost everything a striker needs. He is a strong header of the ball, fast, and good in battles. But the ball is not his friend.
— Bernd Stange (above) on Khairul Nizam
The main thing when you get called up to the national team is that you need to be prepared. If you’re picked to play, you have to prove you deserve it and you have to make the spot yours.
— Khairul Nizam
STANGE'S STRIKING OPTIONS
- Age: 24
- Caps (goals): 13 (2)
- 2016 games (goals): 4 (3)
Strong and aggressive, Nizam's modus operandi is putting himself about in the box and making life tough for defenders.
He is not always the most clinical, but has already netted three times from just four games for Home United in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League this season.
Nizam is also the strongest in the air among the four strikers competing to replace injured Khairul Amri in the Lions' upcoming games against Myanmar and Afghanistan.
He seems to have shaken off injury troubles which plagued him for most of the last four years.
- Age: 30
- Caps (goals): 80 (11)
- 2016 games (goals): 6 (2)
With Fazrul on the pitch, defenders will not get a moment's rest. The Tampines Rovers man's workrate in harrying opposition players is exceptional, although his scoring record at international level is anything but.
However, it has to be noted he has made most of his 80 appearances for the Lions on the wings, where Bernd Stange and predecessor Raddy Avramovic utilised his pace and willingness to track back and defend.
However, he has delivered in the S.League - scoring 63 goals in 106 games since 2011.
- Age: 23
- Caps (goals): 14 (1)
- 2016 games (goals): 4 (1)
Arguably the most talented young striker to emerge in recent years, Sahil has found the going tough at international level. His height - 1.64m - perhaps puts him at a disadvantage but he is blessed with good close control, a willingness to run at defenders and a powerful shot.
Sahil burst on the scene in December 2013, after scoring three goals to help the national Under-23 team reach the semi-final of the SEA Games, and then followed that up with 10 goals in his first full S.League season with the Courts Young Lions in 2014.
But he suffered a lacklustre season with the LionsXII last year when he mostly made cameos off the bench, with coach Fandi Ahmad criticising his individualistic style of play. He joined S.League side Geylang International this season but has scored just once, against last year's champions Brunei DPMM.
- Age: 32
- Caps (goals): 126 (13)
- 2016 games (goals): 6 (1)
Shahril is still the national captain and, with 126 caps, is by far most experienced option. But the Johor Darul Ta'zim II star has not completed the full 90 minutes in Singapore's last 10 internationals, and was an unused substitute in last November's Asian Cup qualifiers against Japan and Syria at the National Stadium.
Critics say he is no longer able to cut it at international level, but the 32-year-old insists he can still contribute. He has never been known for being fleet of foot, instead relying on his intelligence to get the better of the opposition.
Shahril made his name as a playmaker, but shone as striker with eight goals in the LionsXII's Malaysian Super League-winning season in 2013.