Lions XII have backs to the wall
Missing key players, Fandi's side will be more defensive-minded tonight
KELANTAN V LIONSXII
(Tonight, 8.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 201 and 76.25MHz)
All season long, the LionsXII's approach has been to attack.
While it has worked on some occasions in the Malaysian Super League, coach Fandi Ahmad has finally decided to change the tune.
Against Kelantan at the Sultan Mohammad IV Stadium tonight, the Singapore side will switch to a more cautious approach, defending in numbers and hitting their opponents on the counter.
"This time, we'll adopt a soak-and-strike tactic," Fandi told The New Paper, after he put the defending champions through a training session in Kota Bahru yesterday.
"If we just attack Kelantan, we'll be in trouble. We have to sit back and be patient this time."
The 52-year-old's decision to adopt a defensive approach is no doubt down to key absentees for tonight's clash.
Star defender Safuwan Baharudin is serving a one-match suspension for accumulating three yellow cards, while in-form international striker Khairul Amri is out injured.
Midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin and wingback Shakir Hamzah have also been ruled out with injuries.
Afiq Yunos will partner Baihakki Khaizan in the heart of defence and reserve striker Sufian Anuar is set to start alone up front, supported by Shahfiq Ghani.
"We'll just have to make up (for the missing players) with discipline in defence," said Fandi.
"The good news is that the boys are eager to play after a three-week break, especially the ones who haven't featured much this season."
The LionsXII are eighth in the standings, 10 points adrift of leaders Selangor with five matches to go.
With the MSL title lost, the Singapore side will look to end the season with a flourish as they prepare for the Malaysia Cup, which kicks off in early August.
There have been calls for Fandi to blood the untested youngsters in his squad for the rest of the league campaign.
Though the likes of Ignatius Ang, Samuel Benjamin and Aqhari Abdullah have travelled with the squad to Kota Bahru, Fandi said there is little chance of them starting.
"We have to introduce them slowly because right now, they are still not ready," he said.
"Aqhari's done a good job in the (three) matches he's played, but he's better coming off the bench."
Considering the LionsXII's record in Kelantan, Fandi's rationale is understandable.
The LionsXII lost 3-0 and 2-0 in their last two matches here.
Kelantan, which won the treble in 2012, are fifth in the MSL, two points above the LionsXII.
They may not be in the running for the league title, but boast an experienced squad boosted by three foreign stars.
Liberian Francis Doe should start upfront alongside former Ghana international Prince Tagoe, with former Middlesborough midfielder Mohamed Shawky of Egypt pulling the strings in midfield.
The odds may be firmly against the LionsXII, but winger Gabriel Quak, who will start on the right side, believes an upset is possible.
"Now that the season is over for us, title-wise, we will be playing without pressure," he said.
"We have nothing to lose against Kelantan and I think that's a good thing.
"Missing Amri will be tough, but Sufian is a hard worker and that's what we need for these type of games.
Kelantan’s Liberian striker Francis Doe is “bored out of his mind” in Malaysia and can’t wait for the offseason when he can go home.
His coach, George Boateng, however, feels very differently.
After a season in Terengganu as a player, and three months in Kelantan, the former Middlesborough and Holland midfielder gave a thumbs up when TNP asked him how Malaysia was treating him.
“I don’t speak Malay very much, but I still love it here,” said the Dutchman before his team’s final training session yesterday.
“Francis has been here five years, so maybe he feels he’s seen it all. But I feel I’ve just started an adventure.”
After playing a season with T-Team last year, the 38-year-old is not new to Malaysian football, but he is still adjusting to his first stint as a coach.
Boateng, who was born in Ghana and had four caps with Holland, took over the Red Warriors at the end of April, after previous coach Steve Darby was sacked due to poor results.
Kelantan won the treble in 2012 under Bojan Hodak, but have underperformed this season. Lying fifth with almost no chance of winning the MSL title, the team also exited the AFC Cup group stages.
Under Boateng, the Red Warriors have won two of three league games, but lost to Premier League side Felda in the FA Cup semi-finals on away goals after two legs.
He said: “When I took over, this place was a mess.
“There was a lack of discipline,fitness, and the team were disorganised when defending setpieces.
"My job hasn't been easy; I've had to raise the tempo and intensity in training, and I think we are now better fitness-wise."
The club management has not set a specific target for him, but Boateng knows expectations in Kelantan are high and a good run in the Malaysia Cup is a must.
"Hopefully, we'll succeed in the Cup. For now, I'm just focusing on getting the team to play well and keeping everyone fit.
"The LionsXII will be a good test for us. We have a full squad for (tonight's) match, so I have a nice headache."
LionsXII probable line-up: Izwan Mahbud, Faritz Hameed, Afiq Yunos, Baihakki Khaizan, Madhu Mohana, Firdaus Kasman, Raihan Rahman, Shahfiq Ghani, Gabriel Quak, Faris Ramli, Sufian Anuar.
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