LionsXII's Malaysia Cup dreams starting to fade
(Faris Ramli 90+4)
(Dickson Nwakaeme 13, Fauzi Roslan 88)
The bizarre consolation goal summed up the LionsXII's season - they put in an almighty effort to score but fail and, when they finally stick it into the net, it's too late.
In the fourth minute of injury time last night, Pahang defender Damion Stewart tried to head a long ball out of play, only for it to strike the assistant referee and stay in the Jalan Besar Stadium pitch.
Incredibly, his teammate Zeshan Rehman decided to back off and not boot the ball out of touch, and Safuwan Baharudin cleverly played on and crossed for Faris Ramli to score right at the death.
But, by then, Pahang were already 2-0 up after strikes by Dickson Nwakaeme in the 13th minute and substitute Fauzi Roslan in the 88th minute.
And, with Felda United beating Johor Darul Ta'zim II 3-2 to pull three points clear of the LionsXII in second place, the Singapore team's Malaysia Cup dream now hangs by a thread.
The LionsXII have just one point from two games, both played at home as well.
And coach Fandi Ahmad, who fielded nine players below the age of 24 last night, said: "We did enough to win, we dominated and created, but Pahang's quality showed when they scored two goals from the two clear chances they had.
"But we are not out yet. We will go for the six points in the two matches against JDT II (away on Saturday, home next Tuesday) and then we need to beat Felda away.
"It will be very tough because we will be without Baihakki (Khaizan, who cannot play against former club JDT II as part of an agreement), and I don't think (Khairul) Amri can recover in time.
"We will make do with what we have and try to get three wins and the points needed to qualify. We cannot give up now."
At least the 4,186 fans at Jalan Besar saw an improved performance after the drab 0-0 draw against Felda last week, which gives some hope that their team can still make the quarter-finals by winning three of their four remaining group games.
Rampaging forward straight from kick-off, the hosts went about their business with real intent, as Hafiz Abu Sujad flashed a low cross that just eluded his teammates within the first minute.
Even as referee Zulkifli Ahmad struggled to keep a lid on the feisty proceedings, skipper Isa Halim and Raihan Rahman flung their bodies about in midfield to counter Pahang's pace on the counter-attack, while winger Faris was lively switching between both flanks.
But, without top scorer Amri, out with a fractured cheekbone, the LionsXII lacked that crucial finishing touch in the penalty box.
Faris' consolation was the first goal the LionsXII scored since a 21st-minute winner by Zulfahmi Arifin against ATM FA in the Malaysian Super League on May 24, snapping a 430-minute drought at home.
Pahang's Nwakaeme showed just how it is done when the LionsXII couldn't clear an R Gopinathan cross and the powerful Nigerian striker coolly fired past goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud.
Fauzi then blasted in a beauty after Hafiz Kamal teed him up just outside the box.
Pahang coach Zainal Abidin Hassan praised his fallen opponents, saying: "It took every drop of sweat for us to beat the LionsXII today.
"Compared to last season, they are a new team, and they miss experienced players to guide the team.
"If they have more experienced players, they will go far.
"From what I saw today, I believe they can still progress to the quarter-finals."
Faris refused to throw in the towel, telling The New Paper: "Obviously, we are disappointed to lose, but our captain kept encouraging us and we will look at the positives because we created plenty of chances.
"We still believe we can qualify. It's up to us to make the most out of the opportunities we get."
- LIONSXII: Izwan Mahbud 6.5, Madhu Mohana 7, Afiq Yunos 6.5, Safuwan Baharudin 6.5, Shakir Hamzah 6.5, Faris Ramli 7.5, Isa Halim 6 (Firdaus Kasman 82), Zulfahmi Arifin 6, Raihan Rahman 6.5, Hafiz Abu Sujad 6 (Gabriel Quak 76), Sufian Anuar 6 (Shahfiq Ghani 71)
- PAHANG: Khairul Azhan, Razman Roslan, Zeshan Rehman, Damion Stewart, Saiful Nizam, Azammuddin Akil, Hafiz Kamal (R Surendren 90), Azidan Sarudin, Faizol Hussain (Fauzi Roslan 75), R Gopinathan, Dickson Nwakaeme (Matias Conti 85)
- Shots: LionsXII 2 on target, 12 off target, Pahang 5 on target, 9 off target
- Corners: LionsXII 4, Pahang 3
- Yellow cards: LionsXII 3 (Raihan Rahman, Afiq Yunos, Sufian Anuar), Pahang 1
- Attendance: 4,186
- Match rating: 6.5/10
- Referee: Zulkifli Ahmad 5/10
- TNP Man of the Match: Faris Ramli
- Felda 3 Johor DT II 2
- Johor DT 0 ATM 0
- Kelantan 3 Penang 1
- Kedah v Terengganu
- Perak v Sarawak
- Selangor v PDRM
- T-Team v Sime Darby
No end in sight to scoring woes
It is one question which Fandi Ahmad has probably no answer to.
Just where will the goals going to come from?
The last time a LionsXII striker scored was when Khairul Amri opened the scoring with a 16th-minute goal in the 2-1 Malaysian Super League win over ATM FA on May 24.
You would have to go back to April 15 for the last time a LionsXII striker other than seven-goal Amri, out with a fractured cheekbone, has found the net - when Sufian Anuar poached a hat-trick in a 4-1 MSL win over Pahang.
The LionsXII have three other forwards - Shahfiq Ghani, Syafiq Zainal and Khairul Nizam - but none has found the net this season, as defenders and midfielders have contributed most of the 31 goals they scored in 26 games in all competitions.
It is definitely not for want of trying, but Sufian and Shahfiq just could not get their shots on target in the 14 attempts they had against Pahang last night.
Coach Fandi, a legendary goal predator during his heyday, was naturally frustrated.
He said: "Strikers are born, not made. But, other than Amri, we don't have that now. Sufian did his best, but we just couldn't score.
"Those who have the talent need to be polished until they can be of a high standard and can score consistently.
"Those who don't can also train to reach a decent level... the first touch and the sharpness... where they can also contribute goals. We just have to make do with what we have."
Sufian said: "It's frustrating and my heart aches when we lose. People criticise me when I don't score, but I know we all worked very hard and the ball still just won't go in.
"I can only say I'll keep working hard to improve on my finishing, give my best in training and, during games, keep my spirit up.
"We still have four games to go, and we will go all out to beat JDT II."
Winger Faris Ramli, who has contributed six goals in all competitions this season, added that the goalscoring burden should not rest solely on the strikers' shoulders.
The 21-year-old said: "We take responsibility as a team. With composure and some luck, I'm sure not just the strikers, but also the team will start scoring and winning."
- DAVID LEE