Figueroa's goal breaks brave LionsXII hearts
Despite loss, Fandi confident of finishing in top four and secure Malaysia Cup seeding
JOHOR DARUL TA'ZIM 1
(Luciano Figueroa 55)
He has donned the shirt of Argentinan giants River Plate, Greek side Panathinaikos, Italy's Genoa and even Birmingham when they were in the English Premiership in 2003.
He may be playing in the football backwaters of South-east Asia now, but former Argentina international Luciano Figueroa has lost none of his will to win.
The 34-year-old was just about everywhere on the Larkin Stadium turf last night as his Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) hosted Fandi Ahmad's LionsXII.
Whether it was playing up front as the focal point of the Johor attack, in midfield sliding in for tackles or even defending in his own penalty box, Figueroa's sheer will to win was evident as he steered JDT to a 1-0 win that keeps them atop the Malaysian Super League (MSL) standings, with the fate of the title now in their own hands.
Free-flowing at home, it was a different mask worn by Fandi's charges in Larkin last night, as they turned in a resolute defensive performance in the first half, giving no quarter to their opponents.
Madhu Mohana and Shakir Hamzah stood tall in the Singapore side's backline, fending off Figueroa who was hell-bent on hurting the visitors, and slippery puppet master Safiq Rahim who pulled the strings from midfield.
But even on the back of those defensive performances, the LionsXII could not take down the fortress that is Larkin Stadium, where JDT have now gone 38 games unbeaten since April 2012.
And it was Figueroa who made the difference last night.
With a swivel and a sneakily placed shot in the 55th minute that left goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud stranded, the Argentinian broke the resistance of the Singaporean side.
S Kunanlan's right-wing cross was cleverly dummied by substitute Safee Sali and, finding half a metre of space in the box, Figueroa did not need another invitation, especially after being denied by the Madhu-Shakir combination for most of the game.
"Figueroa was the main difference in the game for me... we shut him down in the first half but, when Safee came on, that was a bit of an injection (of life for JDT)," said a dejected Fandi after the game.
"But I'm very proud of the boys, we frustrated a team like JDT, and they couldn't really penetrate in the first half. We gave them a run for their money."
The LionsXII offered little going forward, registering one paltry shot on target all game, but they will draw confidence from what was a tactically sound showing against a team that had eight Malaysian internationals and a familiar Hariss Harun.
The LionsXII are now in seventh position on 29 points in a tight mid-table, three points off third-placed Selangor whom they next face at Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday.
With only Sarawak (Aug 19) and Sime Darby (Aug 22) left to play, the LionsXII need to get things spot-on if they are to finish inside the top four.
The top-four MSL teams will be seeded in the post-season Malaysia Cup.
On 43 points, JDT lead the standings, just one ahead of Pahang who beat Kelantan 5-3 last night.
If Mario Gomez's charges can win their remaining three games, they will retain the MSL title they won last year.
Said the Argentinian coach: "This match was one important final for us, and it was the final result that was important - we must win even if we don't play too good.
"(Figueroa) is very important to us, and I'm very happy with him and the team."
Fandi is hoping for more of the same from his charges, as the quest for a top-four spot continues.
Said Fandi: "The aim is still to get there, and I think we can be seeded for the Malaysia Cup. For that, we have to catch up with the rest in the last three games."
Figueroa was the main difference in the game for me... But I’m very proud of the boys, we frustrated a team like JDT, and they couldn’t really penetrate in the first half. We gave them a run for their money.
— LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad
- Pahang 5 Kelantan 3
- Selangor 3 ATM 2
- Sime Darby 1 Sarawak 1
- Terengganu 2 Perak 1
- PDRM 1 Felda 0
BLOW BY BLOW
14 JDT man Hariss Harun shows great improvisation to hook the ball to Amri Yahyah, who blazes over from 10m.
29 On a rare attack, LionsXII's Khairul Nizam carries the ball half the length of the field, but ends up shooting over.
35 JDT winger Nazrin Nawi whips a cross in but Safiq Rahim blasts his shot over.
52 Luciano Figueroa rises high to meet an S Kunanlan cross, but the Argentinian striker sends his header just wide of the upright.
55 GOAL! Substitute Safee Sali dummies the ball for Figueroa, who turns and fires through Madhu Mohana's legs into the corner.
77 LionsXII sub Sahil Suhaimi tries to drag his team back into the game, but his shot from over 30m just clears the JDT crossbar.