LionsXII have struggled in league campaign, but they don't fear the Malaysia Cup
LIONSXII v FELDA UNITED
(Tonight, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 201 & 76.25MHz)
The class of 2012 were a team of hungry players, some below the age of 23, others with international experience in their mid-20s and some close to the peak of their powers at the age of 28.
Last year's squad featured only five players over the age of 23 - and the LionsXII side did not make it through to the Malaysia Cup final.
This year's edition of the famous competition kicks off tonight, with the Singapore side hosting Group A opponents Felda United at the Jalan Besar Stadium, and there is a quiet confidence in the ranks of the LionsXII.
Despite their struggles in this year's Malaysian Super League (MSL) campaign - the LionsXII failed to defend the title and finished eighth in the 12-team competition - and the team's comparative inexperience, they believe they can match the performance of their predecessors.
"2012 was the year when we had the best team to win the tournament, but they didn't," said midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin, 22.
"Because of our bad form in the league, people won't fear us, and I think we can surprise in the Cup - we really want to do well."
The first LionsXII side finished third in the MSL and lost at the semi-final stage of the post-season Malaysia Cup.
Many didn't expect the 2013 side to do as well, but V Sundramoorthy's team surprised everyone by storming to the MSL title, only to be knocked out in the Cup quarter-finals.
Sundram is now the coach of Negeri Sembilan, and it is the turn of coach Fandi Ahmad to steer the team through a competition he knows so well from his playing days.
Fandi has been working on raising the morale of his team. The former Singapore captain and multiple Malaysia Cup winner has called for his charges to stand up and be counted.
"Past squads had better players... but there can be no more excuses, players like Zulfahmi, Shahfiq Ghani and Gabriel Quak have to perform and show that they belong in this team and can lead even though they are young," said Fandi.
"And I know that not only them, the entire team are also very eager to prove a point."
Singapore star Baihakki Khaizan was part of the first two LionsXII sides and rejoined the team in May after a five-month stint with Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT).
The 30-year-old centre back is optimistic.
"We know what we've done wrong, what we've missed out on, and we must approach the game with optimism," he said.
"This is a cup competition and if we can start brightly, get into rhythm and get some momentum going, who knows where we will end up?"
Both players and their coach acknowledged the loss of experienced heads like midfield star Hariss Harun (JDT) and former skipper Shahril Ishak (JDT II), but Zulfahmi is determined to turn things around.
"Shahril was such a big loss for us, but we need to look forward. We've got Khairul Amri, who is an intelligent player, we've brought back Baihakki in defence and have Isa Halim in midfield - the core of our team is still strong," he said.
"It's time for us to step up."
The situation still isn't ideal for Fandi.
National Service commitments may yet deprive him of two players - Madhu Mohana and Faris Ramli - today, but Fandi is hopeful that the duo can make it. It is a situation that is exacerbated by the suspensions of Raihan Rahman and Sufian Anuar.
"It's a difficult situation and, because of that, we haven't decided our line-up yet," said Fandi.
"But we really want to win this game for the fans whom we hope will turn up and support us."
LIONSXII PROBABLE LINE-UP:
Izwan Mahbud, Madhu Mohana, Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah, Gabriel Quak, Isa Halim, Zulfahmi Arifin, Faris Ramli, Shahfiq Ghani, Khairul Amri
"This is a new tournament and we want to start afresh. We don't want to see any of that poor league form, only the hunger that we now have."
- LionsXII striker Khairul Amri
Amri raring to go
He is still haunted by memories of the 2012 Malaysia Cup, and can vividly remember the moment that saw a place in the final morph into defeat - and elimination.
But Khairul Amri is ready to lace up his scoring boots, determined to set things right this time out, when the LionsXII open their 2014 Cup campaign in Group A against Felda United tonight.
Johor Darul Ta'zim II and Pahang are the other two teams in the group.
"That semi-final against ATM was a nightmare. I kept blaming myself for not keeping the ball in the corner," he said, recalling the semi-final second leg at the Selayang Stadium.
Having drawn 1-1 at home, and leading in the return fixture after a 27th-minute Agu Casmir goal, the LionsXII were just seconds away from victory.
Amri had the ball on the right wing but, instead of seeing the game out, he attacked the opposition goal, lost the ball and watched as it went up the other side of the pitch and into the net, off the head of Marlon James.
The Singapore side eventually lost 5-4 on penalties.
"I'm determined to do well this time and I will work hard on the pitch - starting with this game that we must win," added the Singapore international striker.
The LionsXII started the year as Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions, but managed only an eighth-placed finish in the 12-team competition in a poor defence of their crown.
Said Amri: "This is a new tournament and we want to start afresh. We don't want to see any of that poor league form, only the hunger that we now have.
"I scored seven goals in the league, but I can do better - I must do better in the Cup."
With Sufian Anuar suspended for tonight's fixture, and Shahfiq Ghani yet to break his duck this season, Amri will have to bear most of the team's scoring responsibilities.
"I definitely do feel the pressure to get goals, but the fact is that there are many players in this team who can score," said Amri.
"I've been happy with how I've stayed injury-free this year, and I'm ready for the responsibility."
The 29-year-old hailed the new-found spirit in the squad which he believes will drive them forward, starting tonight.
"We've had some team-bonding sessions these last few days, and it feels like a new squad," he said.
"We're united, and now we have to transfer that feeling out onto the pitch (tonight)."