Fandi calm before the storm of four away games
LIONSXII v PDRM
(Tonight, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
It's a wonder that LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad did not lose his voice after yesterday's training session at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
The 52-year-old was in the thick of things during the 60-minute session, barking orders, gesturing movements, and whistling with two fingers on his lips - so loud, it could be heard a mile away.
He rarely flashed a smile, except when he greeted reporters, and headed into the dressing room quicker than usual.
Was the LionsXII coach nervous about tonight's Malaysian Super League season-opener against PDRM?
Was the pressure to improve on a dismal 2014 season, where the LionsXII finished eighth in the league, getting to him?
"No, not nervous at all," he told The New Paper with his trademark grin.
"I'm calm and relaxed... but when we start playing four away matches in a row, then I'll start to worry."
After tonight's home opener, the Singapore side travel to Kelantan (Feb 14), Perak (Feb 21), PB Melayu Kedah in the FA Cup (Feb 28) and Felda (March 7).
FOUR AWAY GAMES
"Four away games in a row will be a real challenge for us," Fandi added.
"But I feel better now than a few days ago. Up until (yesterday), I wasn't sure who was fit enough to start, especially in defence."
Defender Afiq Yunos has recovered from gout and will start alongside Madhu Mohana in central defence.
Hafiz Abu Sujad has also been given the all-clear for his knee injury and will start at left back.
Firdaus Kasman gets the nod in midfield, as playmaker Zulfahmi Arifin is injured, and forms a central trio with Isa Halim and Izzdin Shafiq.
Up front, Faris Ramli and Gabriel Quak will play wide of target man Khairul Amri.
New boy Sahil Suhaimi will make an appearance off the bench, revealed Fandi, who made no secret of his admiration for the 22-year-old striker.
"I want him to feel hungry coming off the bench," explained the coach.
"Also, he is new to the team and he wasn't with us the previous two weeks (Sahil was with the Young Lions in Turkey).
"I don't want him to feel out of place. It's better he watches us first and then comes off the bench to give us something extra."
A natural striker who spearheaded the Courts Young Lions' attack the past two seasons, Sahil will have to adapt to a new role in the LionsXII set-up.
"Sahil is daring and willing to take on opponents, but still lacks experience," Fandi said.
"The Malaysian Super League is new to him and, if I put him as a target man, he will struggle.
"I've told him I want him to play differently for us, as a roaming striker next to Amri."
A crucial opening-day victory notwithstanding, Fandi wants his charges to make the most of home-ground advantage tonight.
The Jalan Besar Stadium was considered a fortress for the LionsXII during their 2013 MSL-winning campaign, when they won 10 and drew one from 11 home games.
POOR HOME RECORD
Last season, however, the team won just four league matches at home.
"I've spoken to the boys about how they have to try and win every home game," Fandi said.
"I can see the boys have matured from last season, players like Firdaus, Nazrul (Nazari) and especially Madhu. You should see how Madhu commands the defence now.
"This team are ready."
LIONSXII PROBABLE LINE-UP: Izwan Mahbud, Nazrul Nazari, Afiq Yunos, Madhu Mohana, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Isa Halim, Izzdin Shafiq, Firdaus Kasman, Gabriel Quak, Faris Ramli, Khairul Amri
Back the LionsXII, win SilkAir tickets
Here's another reason to support the LionsXII.
New sponsors SilkAir will give away two air tickets in a lucky draw at every LionsXII home game this season, starting with tonight's Malaysian Super League season-opener against PDRM.
This is the first initiative of the one-year deal signed with the regional wing of Singapore Airlines.
"Through this tie-up with the LionsXII, SilkAir wishes to demonstrate our aim of nurturing the local sports scene. It also serves as an opportunity to rally the football community, and reach out to fans not just in Singapore but also in the five Malaysian cities which we serve," said SilkAir's vice-president, commercial, Ryan Pua, who declined to reveal the value of the deal.
"SilkAir is committed to supporting local and, if the opportunity arises to support the national team, we are happy to review that as well."
Last July, Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia signed a three-year $1.8 million sponsorship deal with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), which covers flights for its national teams.
"Football, in particular, has always been one of the most popular sports here and a clear passion for Singaporeans. We found this to be an exciting opportunity to play our part in not only developing our local athletes but also nurturing Singapore's sports scene in the best way possible," added Pua.
SilkAir was coaxed to join the football fraternity by LionsXII's exclusive marketing partners Kingsmen, who also welcomed Shuttle Cargo and Weldman Welding into the LionsXII family.
"Besides the players, fans are an important part of the football culture and we want to do our part in acknowledging the support of the "12th" man in the team," added Pua, explaining SilkAir's move to give away air tickets at LionsXII's home games.
SilkAir flies to 48 destinations in 12 countries across the Asia Pacific, including five in Malaysia.
- SHAMIR OSMAN