LionsXII open with a goal fest
(Gabriel Quak 21, Faris Ramli 44, Izzdin Shafiq 48, Hafiz Abu Sujad 56, Sahil Suhaimi 66)
(Dramane Traore 68-pen, 79, 89)
The King George's stand was empty, and just a smattering of fans filled the far ends of the grandstand.
After the LionsXII's disappointing eighth-placed finish in last season's Malaysian Super League, local football fans can be forgiven for thinking twice about attending last night's season-opener against PDRM at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
For the 5,288 who showed up, they were treated to a goal fest as the LionsXII thumped the newly-promoted Malaysian Police team 5-3 to go top of the MSL.
The LionsXII looked a much different side from the one who often played without confidence and verve last year.
They were fluid in attack - hitting the target 11 times from their 12 attempts -and solid at the back for at least 70 minutes.
No wonder coach Fandi Ahmad wore a broad smile when he attended the post-match press conference.
"It was a fantastic result. We've been trying to play this sort of attacking football and I'm happy that we did so tonight, for 70 minutes," said the coach.
"I hope the fans are happy with the result and the goals, but we really need to tighten up defensively.
"Otherwise, it was a very good start for us."
Fandi certainly had reason to worry about his side's defending.
The central defensive duo of Madhu Mohana and Afiq Yunos were solid for three-quarters of the game, stifling PDRM's front foreign duo of Ali Ashfaq and Dramane Traore.
But, when Afiq had to be replaced in the 73rd minute due to injury, the solid wall simply crumbled.
The LionsXII were 5-1 up by that point, but the towering Traore added two goals in the last 10 minutes to ensure a nervy finish for the home side.
The Mali striker finished the game with a hat-trick. He struck his first from the penalty spot in the 68th minute, after referee Shamsudin Ibrahim awarded a soft penalty for a push by Nazrul Nazari.
"We really missed Afiq during the last 15 minutes," lamented Fandi.
"And, with four away games (in a row) coming up, we need to work on our concentration in defence."
Fandi also expressed concern over striker Khairul Amri's injury.
The 29-year-old assisted two goals, but had to be replaced after 75 minutes when he took a nasty knock to the shin.
Forwards Faris Ramli and Sahil Suhaimi will miss the team's next fixture against Kelantan in Kota Baru next Saturday - owing to National Under-23 duty against Japan on the same day - and Amri's possible absence could upset the team's momentum.
Said Fandi: "I will definitely have to change things around for Kelantan.
"Will we play with the same attacking approach? We will have to study our opponents first."
Fandi can at least find solace in the fact that two of his new players enjoyed fantastic debuts last night.
Izzdin Shafiq, a member of the LionsXII in 2013 before moving to Home United in the S.League last year, was the standout performer.
His goal in the 48th minute was the pick of the bunch, lobbing the ball into the net with his first touch from a rebound outside the box.
Striker Sahil, who came on for his LionsXII debut after 64 minutes, took just two minutes to make his mark, shrewdly earning a free-kick outside the area and sweetly striking it into the bottom corner.
"It's a good sign to see five different players score, especially the midfielders," Fandi said.
"Hafiz ran 70 metres from defence to score his goal, which was also good to see.
"And I'm happy especially for Gabriel (Quak). This was one of his best performances for us.
"This is just the first game, but I hope we will continue playing like this."
TNP MAN OF THE MATCH
Put in a solid shift in the LionsXII engine room and was involved in two of his team's five goals, scoring one. Though he's not known for his pace, the 24-year-old Izzdin covered more ground than anyone else on the pitch, sprinting from box to box and passing the ball with precision.
TEAMS & PLAYERS' RATINGS
- LIONSXII: Izwan Mahbud 6, Nazrul Nazari 6, Afiq Yunos 7.5 (Wahyudi Wahid 73), Madhu Mohana 7, Hafiz Abu Sujad 7, Isa Halim 7, Izzdin Shafiq 8, Firdaus Kasman 6.5, Gabriel Quak 7 (Sahil Suhaimi 64,) 7, Faris Ramli 7, Khairul Amri 7.5 (Christopher van Huizen 75)
- PDRM: Saiful Sudar, Fadhil Hashim (Fekry Tajudin 51), Ali Ashfaq, Ezrie Shafizie, Dramane Traore, Azwan Roya (Shahurain Samah 46), Fauzi Majid, V Thirumurugan, Afif Amiruddin (Asyidi Yusof 89), Muslim Ahmad, Mohamadou Sumareh
- Attendance: 5,288
- Referee: Shamsudin Ibrahim
- Match rating: 8/10