Speed on the counterattack now a LionsXII weapon
They flowed freely in the opposition half, combining speed and movement and displaying an impressive sense of adventure in pouring men forward to join the search for goals.
On Saturday at the Jalan Besar Stadium, the LionsXII's counter-attacking style saw five different players get their name on the scoresheet as they ran our 5-3 winners over PDRM in their opening Malaysian Super League (MSL) fixture.
The fullbacks surged down the flanks - left back Hafiz Abu Sujad scored the fourth goal of the game - and even central defender Madhu Mohana showed a willingness to join the attack when the opportunity arose.
The team will head off to Kelantan for their second game of the season full of confidence, but coach Fandi Ahmad warned that playing away from home will present a completely different challenge.
The speed present in the squad - from the likes of wide players Faris Ramli and Gabriel Quak to main striker Khairul Amri and right back Nazrul Nazari - will still be a key feature of the LionsXII game-plan, but it will be executed with more caution.
"We used our speed to great effect (on Saturday), and we will still need that speed in counter-attacks," Fandi told The New Paper yesterday.
CHANGE OF STYLE
"But when we play away, we must be a bit more conservative, because we will have to face teams who will come out looking for a win, and their fans behind them - we'll need players with character."
Singing from the same song book, assistant coach Nazri Nasir called for more defensive discipline.
He said: "We must be more compact and look to use the speed that we have on the counter-attack - that's the discipline that we need to show when we are not playing at Jalan Besar."
The opening win sees the LionsXII occupy top spot in the 12-team MSL, and the Kelantan clash in Kota Baru on Saturday will be the first of three successive league games on the road.
The task of escaping from Kota Baru with points in the bag has been made harder as Amri is doubtful after suffering a shin injury on Saturday. He will be assessed today.
Faris and Sahil Suhaimi have also been called up for the national Under-23 side's friendly against Japan's Under-22 team on Saturday night.
"Faris can run at defenders, and open the game for us, and he will be a big miss, but we will have to cope," said Fandi.
Sahil has shown flashes of brilliance when he leads the forward line, but has not been as effective when deployed out of his favoured position, and with Amri the preferred option up front, it could be a while before Sahil can push for the main striker's role.
Fandi, though, believes Sahil, who scored on Saturday off a free-kick after coming on as a 64th-minute substitute, will only get better.
"Sahil hasn't been training with the team much (due to commitments with the U-23s) and he still appears uncomfortable with our 4-3-3 system, but I'm sure he will get better once he starts to understand what he needs to do," said Fandi.
"I'm definitely happy with the fact that we're playing well on the counterattack and we had five different players scoring on Saturday.
"The difference between this year and last year is the maturity of the players. They now know their responsibilities, they can work as a team - and they are hungrier than they were last year," he said. "It's coming together slowly."
"When we play away, we must be a bit more conservative, because we will have to face teams who will come out looking for a win."
- LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad
Engine room fight heats up
COMBATIVE: LionsXII midfielder Firdaus Kasman (far right) challenging PDRM's Fauzi Majid. - TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Izzdin Shafiq left the LionsXII at the end of 2013 and returned to Fandi Ahmad's side after a year with S.League team Home United.
After producing a swashbuckling display in midfield in the season-opening 5-3 win over PDRM on Saturday, he looks as if he might have already cemented his spot in the engine room, over 2013 first-choice midfield man and national player Zulfahmi Arifin.
"He provides the kind of diagonal balls that (former Singapore international) Rafi Ali could do, he isn't afraid to shoot and I have to say he did really well," said LionsXII assistant coach Nazri Nasir, of the No. 13, who scored the third of five goals on Saturday with an exquisite chip.
"This gives us very healthy competition in the midfield."
With Firdaus Kasman and Isa Halim also putting in good shifts, Fandi and Nazri have a lot to think about before the trip to Kota Baru to take on Kelantan on Saturday.
Central defender Afiq Yunos also had to be withdrawn in the 73rd minute against PDRM due to injury and Fandi said: "I'm concerned about Afiq, and Isa still has problems with his heel and knee, so he might not be able to play so often on (the harder) astro turf at Jalan Besar.
"Squad rotation will be important this year.
"We seem okay in midfield and attack but a bit thin in defence, and that is my main concern."
Fandi has experimented shifting Zulfahmi from midfield to defence during pre-season in the Maldives and believes the left-footed 23-year-old can do a job in the backline.
"We have tried playing Zul at centre back and he's shown that he's not bad there - that is also an option for us," said Fandi.
All this leads to a bit of a selection headache.
Nazri said: "We know what Isa can do; Firdaus has shown that he will fight to the end, and Izzdin has done very well.
"Before Saturday's game, I told the players that they can't make finding the first 11 an easy job for us, and it looks like they are giving us a headache - a welcome one."
What's next for LionsXII
(Sat, 8.45pm, Kota Baru)
(Feb 21, 8.45pm, Ipoh)
v MElAYU KEDAH*
(Feb 28, 4.45pm, Alor Setar)
v FELDA UNITED
(March 7, 8.45pm, Selayang)
(March 14, 7.45pm, Jalan Besar)
(April 4, 8.45pm, Kuantan)
*Malaysia FA Cup