Baihakki and Shahril back to plot LionsXII's downfall
QUARTER-FINAL, FIRST LEG
LIONSXII v JOHOR DARUL TA'ZIM II
(Tonight, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
They were once heroes of the team, leading members of the swashbuckling LionsXII side that stormed to the Malaysian Super League (MSL) title in 2013.
Defensive stalwart Baihakki Khaizan was the first goalscorer for the LionsXII when they played their first MSL game at the Jalan Besar Stadium in 2012, while inspirational skipper Shahril Ishak contributed 23 goals in all competitions in two glorious seasons where they finished runners-up and champions.
But tonight, the two 31-year-olds will change up in the visitors' locker room.
To the home fans, they will no longer be "one of us", but two footballers who are part of a Johor Darul Ta'zim II side that are plotting their team's progress past the LionsXII and into the Malaysian FA Cup semi-finals.
Speaking to The New Paper on the eve of the first leg of their quarter-final, Singapore international defender Baihakki said: "We still keep in touch with the team and see each other when we are back in town.
"But this is football, teams renew, youngsters have to take over and the older players move on."
Added Shahril: "It feels good to be back on a familiar ground at Jalan Besar, where we worked together and achieved so much. We know about the LionsXII's strengths and weaknesses as much as they know about us.
"It is definitely a strange feeling to be the away team, but we have a job to do."
Spotting good friend and former teammate Khairul Amri at the stadium yesterday, Baihakki said he is relishing a showdown with the talented striker, and quipped: "This fella, I will give it to him."
With huge resources being pumped in by the Johor Crown Prince, MSL favourites Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) were expected to do well in all competitions.
But JDT II are Johor's sole survivors in the FA Cup, after the MSL side were knocked out by Pahang in the first round.
Goran Paulic's team are fifth in the second-tier Malaysian Premier League, and the coach told The New Paper: "I am a bit surprised that we are here and they (JDT) are not, but it is also a little unfair to say that because we are a good team, too.
"Right now, our objective is to produce more players for Johor in the long term. As of now, we have experienced players in their 30s and young players in their early 20s but very few in between.
"Tactically, our younger players are not as educated in football, which played a part in us conceding two late goals in injury time to lose 2-1 to Penang last week in our league game.
"But these are issues we cannot fix overnight, only in the long run."
It is why Paulic thinks Baihakki and Shahril will play a big part if JDT II are to upset the LionsXII on their own patch tonight, and give the visitors an advantage ahead of the second leg in Pasir Gudang on April 22.
"They have lots of experience, this Jalan Besar astroturf is like their home," he said.
"They have the respect of the LionsXII and this could be a slight advantage for us.
"We still have to play well on the pitch, of course. If we work as a team, we can get a good result to bring back to Johor for the second leg."
Baihakki insists that at Jalan Besar, his former club have to be the favourites.
Perhaps playing a bit of mind games with his former comrades, the centre back added: "We are not here thinking of victory, we just want to come here and enjoy football."
Shahril, who has five goals to his name this term, will be looking to unleash some pain on a Jekyll-and-Hyde LionsXII defence that has kept three clean sheets in eight games, conceding 11 goals.
He said: "We are good friends with the LionsXII players and staff, but we are also professionals.
"For the 90 minutes, we will be opponents who will give our all to make sure we get an advantage for the second leg."
We are good friends with the LionsXII players and staff, but we are also professionals. For the 90 minutes, we will be opponents who will give our all to make sure we get an advantage for the second leg.
— JDT II’s Shahril Ishak
LAST NIGHT'S RESULTS
- Pahang 2 Penang 0
- Sime Darby 1 Kelantan 1
- Terengganu 1 Perak 1
FANDI: WE MUST BE TENACIOUS IN ATTACK, TIGHT IN DEFENCE
LESSON: Fandi warning the LionsXII that JDT II will have nothing to lose. - TNP PHOTO: JEREMY LONG
The LionsXII have scored eight goals and kept two clean sheets in the first two rounds, and they are bent on keeping their good run going in the first leg of the Malaysian FA Cup quarter-final against Johor Darul Ta'zim II tonight.
LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad told The New Paper his team are going all out to get a healthy advantage to bring to Pasir Gudang for the second leg on April 22, as he welcomes top striker Khairul Amri back into the fold.
He explained: "I rested Amri against Pahang because he was recovering from a groin strain and we have to take into account the fact we are playing six matches in 22 days.
"Amri can create and he is clinical, and we also have (Khairul Nizam) back and it was good to see him score against Pahang and last 90 minutes. We also value his physical presence up front.
"The FA Cup is a realistic opportunity for silverware, but we have to take it one match at a time.
"We beat Melayu Kedah and KL SPA 4-0 and we hope we can continue our free-scoring ways in the FA Cup, which will be important for the second leg.
"But we will be aware of the threat JDT II pose from set-pieces with Baihakki (Khaizan) in their team and the intelligent attacking plays initiated by Shahril (Ishak)."
Like Amri, Faris Ramli has scored three goals for the LionsXII this season, and looks like a player transformed under Fandi's tutelage.
The 22-year-old scored eight goals for the LionsXII in a breakthrough season last term, and he told TNP: "Coach Fandi has had a great impact on changing my perspective from one who is happy to assist to one who is hungry to get on the scoresheet.
"My target was eight goals last season and I met that. This season will be to hit double digits, and I also want to open my FA Cup account for this year.
"Most importantly, I want to help the team win whenever I score, because my goals would be meaningless if we lose.
"With the exception of long-term injuries to Shahdan (Sulaiman) and Afiq (Yunos), we are all fighting fit under our fitness coach Sasha (Aleksandar Bozenko) and we want to put on a good performance for our fans."
With the competition whittled down to the last eight, Amri feels that every game is now "like a final", especially against lower-league teams like JDT II.
Fit, rested and eager to get back to action, he said: "We are a Malaysian Super League team, we are playing on home ground, we have to win.
"JDT II will be dangerous because they will play like a team with nothing to lose.
"We have to stay focused at both ends of the pitch."
Indeed, Fandi also stressed the importance of preventing any away goals and keeping a clean sheet at home.
He praised goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud for his sterling performances between the posts recently, and backed him to continue his fine form.
"He has done very well, and we need him to continue to take responsibility to command the defence," said Fandi.