Two decades on, and four years since Singapore decided to return to the Malaysian football scene, its representative, the LionsXII (Lions-12), have defied the odds to clinch the Malaysia (FA) Cup in a tense battle at Bukit Jalil, Malaysia’s national stadium. Two years ago, a V. Sundramoorthy-managed side took the Malaysian League (M-League) by storm to clinch the title with a game to spare. On Saturday night, Singapore football legend Fandi Ahmad managed what even his predecessor could not achieve, and that was to lead the LionsXII to triumph against heavily-fancied Kelantan FA. Coming into the game as underdogs, LionsXII knew that it would be like an away game, with only 6,000 of the almost 88,000 capacity crowd would be supporters coming from across the causeway.
1. Fandi’s Tactics Prevail LionsXII’s manager knew that the final would likely be dominated by Kelantan, and set out his team to sit deep and counter. Fandi lined up his back four with former winger Nazrul Nazari and left midfield player Hafiz Sujad as full-backs, but none was allowed to stray too far forward. Ahead of the center back pairing of Madhu Mohana and Zulfahmi Arifin were defensive midfield duo Izzidin Shafiq and Safuwan Baharudin, who like the full-backs weren’t allowed forward as much as they would like. This allowed the wingers, Gabriel Quak and goalscorer Faris Ramli, forward down the flanks, as one of two out-ball options for the defence. With their pace and trickery on the ball, Faris and Gabriel were able to run with the ball down the line and push their team forward whenever necessary. Add to the physical presence of Khairul Amri and Khairul Nizam upfront, both who can hold the ball up and ride opposing defenders’ challenges, the LionsXII were always able to avoid getting pinned back whenever Kelantan built up a head of steam.
sahil played the role of super-sub for the lionsxii
The sit deep and counter strategy worked best in that final ten minute period, where as Kelantan were pushing for a late winner, the LionsXII delivered a sucker punch with two magnificent counter-attacks. Super-sub Sahil Suhaimi picked up a loose pass in midfield before taking on the few Kelantan defenders left at the back, and then unleashing a precise shot past Kelantan goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi. As the game entered injury-time, a long punt from Faris left Kelantan defender Amirizdwan Taj one-on-one with Sahil, whose change of pace left Taj with no choice but to give away a penalty. Sahil duly converted, sealing the cup for Fandi’s men.
2. Skipper Comes Up Trump For much of the game, the LionsXII were on the back foot and on the end of a constant stream of Kelantan attacks. If not for stand-in skipper Izwan Mahbud with a match-winning performance in goal, Fandi’s defend-and-counter tactics might have unravelled eventually. Brazilian forward Gilmar and Columbian striker Erwin Carrillo were having a field day taking shots at the LionsXII goal, but Izwan constantly stood in their way, coming up with save after save, keeping Kelantan at bay.
izwan rightly lifted the cup after carrying his side through the final
The first key stop was just after the LionsXII had taken a surprise lead through Faris, when Carrillo found space in the inside right channel of the penalty box. The Columbian launched a shot across the goal only for Izwan to dive down to his right and block the shot. The second was halfway through the first-half, when Kelantan was starting to build up some momentum, as Gilmar managed to shimmy past Madhu on the left channel and fire towards goal, only for Izwan to extend a leg. In the second half, Izwan continued his duel with Carrillo. The goalkeeper rushed out bravely to smother the Columbian’s effort, before a long-range pile-driver from Carrillo forced Izwan into a truly world-class tip over the bar. Although he had no chance with Kelantan’s equaliser from right winger Zack Haikal, Izwan dominated his box and caught most crosses and corners comfortably and with much aplomb. Deservedly named sponsors’ man-of-the-match, Izwan continues to prove his credentials in big games, and it should not be long before Asia’s giants start looking to him as their next number one.
3. LionsXII’s Development Continues Having lost experienced personnel like Baihakki Khaizan, Hariss Harun and Shahril Ishak in the past two seasons, and with the average age of the squad dropping year-on-year, few would have expected the team to achieve success again in such a short space of time. Yet this Malaysia Cup victory could prove more vital and satisfying than the maiden M-League victory back in 2013. Most of the 14 players who took to the field on Saturday night were not major parts of the league triumph of 2013, with only Izwan, Safuwan, Hafiz and Faris commanding regular places back then. Since then, strike partners Amri and Nizam were signed from clubs in the Singapore League (S-League), while even late substitute Christopher van Huizen was found during a stint on a local football reality/competition show. Of those 14, five are under 24 years – Nazrul, Zulfahmi, Madhu, Safuwan, Nizam – while Faris, van Huizen and match winner Sahil are under 23.
young team with much room to grow and improve
Whereas the previous title-winning squad had a core of leadership of Baihakki, Hariss and Shahril, this year’s team had to rely on previous support staff like skipper and unused substitute Isa Halim, Amri and Safuwan. The latter did undergo a short six-match stint in the A-League with Melbourne City, and many more of this cup-winning squad will hope for opportunities overseas. The Football Association of Singapore and fellow fans will hope this cup triumph can be built on next season, and also act as a spur for many to gain chances at a higher level overseas, just like Safuwan did after his impressive form in the title-winning season of 2013. This can be the only way the LionsXII, and Singapore football in general, can continue to grow as well as develop players worthy to represent the national team.