LionsXII can still meet top-three target, says Fandi
Boosted by return of Safuwan, Shahdan and Shakir, Fandi is optimistic of achieving top-three target
LIONSXII v PERAK
(Tonight, 9pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
They sit awkwardly in the bottom half of the table, seventh to be exact, 10 points away from the top of the 12- team Malaysian Super League (MSL), and the same tally away from the relegation zone.
But, with almost a full compliment of fighting-fit players to choose from - only Afiq Yunos, Zakir Samsudin and Zulfahmi Arifin still require treatment - LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad is confident his team can still meet the pre-season target of a top-three finish.
Ahead of tonight's MSL clash with third-placed Perak at Jalan Besar, with the Bos Gaurus enjoying a seven-point lead over the LionsXII, Fandi told The New Paper: "Out of our eight remaining league matches, five are at home.
"Four of them are against teams in the top five - Perak, Felda United, Pahang and Selangor - but it is not impossible to go for maximum points.
"We are playing well, even in the away matches where we have just one win.
"So we have to keep playing at such a high level, with the same intensity for the rest of the league season, and let the opponents worry about us instead of the other way around.
"It is important that we qualify for the Malaysia Cup, and qualify well.
"To finish in the top three would be great because that would mean we are one of the four top seeds for the Malaysia Cup, which would hopefully give us a better draw.
"I believe we are now a much stronger team after our poor start to the season."
Getting off to a slow start to the league campaign, as they struggled with the loss of numerous key players due to injuries, the LionsXII went on a seven-game winless streak after beating PDRM FA 5-3 on the opening day.
But, after being boosted by the mid-season triple-S reinforcements in defender Shakir Hamzah and midfielders Safuwan Baharudin and Shahdan Sulaiman, the Malaysian FA Cup winners went on a fairy-tale cup run and picked up 10 points from five league games since their return.
PICK OF THE BUNCH
Dynamic utility man Safuwan, 23, has been the pick of the bunch since his successful stint with A-League club Melbourne City, contributing two goals and two assists in six games in all competitions.
Shahdan, 27, back from his horrific leg break in last year's Suzuki Cup, has gone from strength to strength since two cameo appearances in May, before grabbing a goal in the 3-1 league win over ATM FA last month and then an assist in the 3-0 league victory over Kelantan last week.
Shakir has also assimilated well after the disappointing SEA Games outing last month, easing into customary left-back and centre-back roles, and impressed alongside Madhu Mohana with the clean sheet against Kelantan.
"Having these players back definitely gives us options, because we need players who are strong, mobile and creative," said Fandi.
"Shahdan and Safuwan in central midfield provide stability and penetrative passes. They can also push up and get us goals.
"Shakir combined well with Madhu and he is an asset for us with his pace and aggression.
"As you can see from the Kelantan match, the three of them clicked well with the rest of the team. We were overlapping well, passing well and counter-attacked effectively on fast breaks.
"I would say that was our best performance this season, but we can still improve on the final pass and not leave that many gaps when we attack and lose possession."
Shahdan talked about a renewed positivity in the dressing room after the FA Cup win, and added: "Against Kelantan, everything just felt right, and we had a convincing win against them, which is not often the case for any of their opponents.
"We have the belief that if we keep playing the way we are, we will give a good fight and get a result against any team, but we are not getting ahead of ourselves.
"It has to be one game at a time, starting with Perak.
"The teams ahead of us will beat one another in this crazy schedule next month, when we have to play seven matches in 21 days, so it's good that our injury list is getting shorter because we need everyone to be fit and ready.
"To close a gap of seven points with eight games left is very possible. If we can keep playing well and go on a good run, we can still make the top three."
- Probable LionsXII line-up: Izwan Mahbud, Nazrul Nazari, Madhu Mohana, Shakir Hamzah, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Izzdin Shafiq, Safuwan Baharudin, Shahdan Sulaiman, Gabriel Quak, Khairul Amri, Faris Ramli.
Having these players back definitely gives us options, because we need players who are strong, mobile and creative... As you can see from the Kelantan match, the three of them clicked well with the rest of the team. We were overlapping well, passing well and counter-attacked effectively on fast breaks.
— LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad on the impact made by Safuwan Baharudin, Shahdan Sulaiman and Shakir Hamzah
Terror trio set to wreak havoc
DANGER MEN: (From left) Charles Souza Chad, Namkung Woong and Nurridzuan Abu Hassan have accounted for 23 of Perak's 26 league goals.
Madhu Mohana and Co will have to watch out for Perak's fearsome threesome at the Jalan Besar Stadium tonight.
Burly Brazilian hitman Charles Souza Chad (nine goals), silky South Korean striker Namkung Woong (eight) and Malaysian wide man Nurridzuan Abu Hassan (six) have been terrorising defenders in the Malaysian Super League (MSL), combining for 23 goals in 14 games.
The statistic looks even more impressive, if you take into account that they have scored 23 of Perak's 26 league goals.
Third in the MSL on 27 points and three adrift of leaders Pahang, they enter tonight's game on the back of three consecutive wins.
The Malaysian side are also the league's second-highest scorers, just two behind Selangor (28).
Said Perak coach M Karathu, 71, at yesterday's training session: "What makes it all the more interesting is how well they've done when we've never emphasised on our individual strengths.
"I've always made it a point to set my team up to serve the collective, but you can say that one part of the team works to serve the other, and that's the reason behind our strength up front.
"Charles has three goals in the last three games, while Namkung has three in four, so they're in very good form."
The contrast in scoring fortunes between Perak and the LionsXII should be cause for concern to the Singaporean camp.
Faris Ramli, Khairul Amri and Gabriel Quak have combined for a paltry nine league goals this season.
But, while Perak's dazzling foreign strikers will once again play a big role tonight, their biggest threat will likely come from 23-year-old Nurridzuan, their dead-ball specialist.
His unstoppable free-kick, which opened the scoring in the 2-1 win over ATM FA last Saturday, took his set-piece goal tally to four.
And he is looking forward to inflicting more damage on the LionsXII tonight.
He said: "I'd very much like to score from open play but, to be known as a threat from free-kicks, that's something I don't mind at all.
"There's no secret behind it, I just hit and somehow, it goes in.
"If I get the chance to get a goal from that sort of situation, I'll take it."
The duel between Chad and in-form LionsXII goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud is another interesting one to watch out for.
The 33-year-old beat Izwan in their earlier clash on Feb 21, in a 2-2 draw in Ipoh.
Chad said: "The LionsXII are a very good team, with a good goalkeeper, so we have to show them respect when we play them.
"But I beat Izwan once and, with the attacking players that we have, it can happen again if we do things right."
- HAIQAL SARI
Tickets for LionsXII v Perak
Fresh from their 3-0 thumping of Kelantan last Saturday, the LionsXII host Perak tonight eyeing another three points.
Tickets for the 9pm clash at Jalan Besar Stadium are on sale. Fans can get their tickets at the North Gate of the stadium today from 10am till kick-off, subject to availability.
Grandstand tickets are available for $13 ($11.70 for members), while Gallery and King George's Stand tickets are $8 ($7.20 for members).
Gallery and King George's Stand tickets for concession holders are priced at $4. The above-mentioned prices do not include ticketing fees.