Malaysia Super League | Jalan Besar Stadium | Sat 14 Mar | 7.45pm
The long-awaited return to the Lions’ den.
The LionsXII finally return to competitive action at Jalan Besar Stadium after four successive away games (one FA Cup and three league matches). It’s been so far so good for Fandi Ahmad’s boys in the Malaysian Super League, having accumulated five points from four games (ironically the same tally at this stage last season) and just three points adrift of table-toppers Felda United.
While the thrilling 5-3 opening day victory against PDRM FA was slightly dampened by a 2-0 loss to Kelantan FA, they showed sterner stuff in the last two games on the road by holding both Perak FA and Felda to draws – leading Fandi to comment that this team has more ‘guts’ than last year’s.
Their visitors on Saturday, Terengganu FA, are similarly in rather good form this term, with seven points collected thus far. A 2-0 opening win against Selangor FA was followed up by a lowly 3-1 loss to Sarawak FA, but they bounced back well to beat Sime Darby FC 2-1 before settling for a 2-2 draw against ATM FA.
Abdul Rahman Ibrahim has assembled a handy squad to improve on last season’s fourth-placed finish, retaining Cameroonian centre-back Vincent Bikana and key local players like Ashari Samsudin, Zairo Anuar, Manaf Mamat, as well as 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup finalist Zubir Azmi. Lebanese midfielder Hassan Chaito and Argentinian playmaker Gustavo Lopez have been good additions to the squad, but there is no doubt who the star attraction is.
Brazilian hotshot Paulo Rangel, who won the Golden Boot last season with Selangor, has been in sparkling form with five goals to his name already – 11 short of last season’s tally.
When these two sides met in pre-season two months ago, the 30-year-old hit a first-half hat trick to sink the LionsXII 3-1 – with Isa Halim scoring the consolation for the Singaporeans. The centre-back pairing of Afiq Yunos and Madhu Mohana, who played that day, should have learnt some valuable lessons to apply in this game.
The LionsXII should also have a point to prove on Saturday, having not beaten the Turtles in both league encounters last year. A 0-0 draw at Jalan Besar marked the start of a poor run at home, which saw them picking up just three wins in the remaining nine home matches, while they lost 2-1 away at the Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah Stadium. Khairul Amri’s early goal was cancelled out by Javier Estupinan’s header before Zairo’s second-half penalty sank the Lions.
Winger-turned-rightback Nazrul Nazari injured his knee in training on Wednesday, which means that either Faris Azienuddin or Wahyudi Wahid could deputise. Defensive lynchpin Afiq is also touch and go, but if he does recover to partner Madhu in central defence, that would free up Zulfahmi Arifin to fight it out with Firdaus Kasman in midfield alongside Izzdin Shafiq and captain Isa.
Flying wingers Gabriel Quak and Faris Ramli, who scored in the 5-3 win against PDRM, should form the attacking fulcrum along with lone forward Khairul Amri, while Sahil Suhaimi continue to kick his heels on the bench.
Hardman Raihan Rahman is still some way from full fitness and should join long-term injury victims Samuel Benjamin and Shahdan Sulaiman in the stands.
On the other hand, Terengganu have no real injury concerns and should be raring to go for this game.
Player to watch: Gabriel Quak
2014 was not the best of seasons for Quak – rarely completing 90 minutes for his club while playing a bit-part role in the nation’s failed Suzuki Cup campaign. However, the 24-year-old has started the season like a man with something to prove – not only equalling last season’s tally of two goals, but also showing more maturity in his play in terms of tracking back to help the defence and drifting into the middle to confuse opposition defenders.
Having spurned two gilt-edged opportunities against Felda, the fleet-footed winger should be itching to make amends this time round.
In Abdul Rahman Ibrahim, Fandi Ahmad will come up against one of the shrewdest operators in Malaysian football. With over 30 years of experience in coaching, the 68-year-old former national team coach has a reputation of being a miracle worker with smaller sides – leading Selangor PKNS into the MSL in 2012 before inspiring Terengganu to a shock fourth-placed finish last year.
It would not be surprising to see the veteran sacrificing style for substance again in this fixture, something which he did last season to hold the Singaporeans to a stalemate.
Facts and figures
- Goals for the LionsXII this season are evenly spread out within the team, with seven different scorers – Quak, Faris, Izzdin, Hafiz Sujad, Sahil, Amri and Firdaus
- In contrast, Terengganu are heavily reliant on Rangel, who have accounted for five of their seven goals. Ashari Samsudin and Manaf Manat have scored the other two
- Terengganu have scored in every game so far, while the LionsXII have fired blanks in two out of four games
- It is fairly even in terms of the head-to-head records between both teams – each team has picked up the win three times each, while the other two matches ended up in draws.
FFT.com Editor Zee Ko: 1-1. Madhu to put the LionsXII ahead early, only for Rangel to snatch a point at the death.
Gary Koh: A narrow 1-0 win for the LionsXII, Quak with the winning goal.
Kenneth Tan: The LionsXII to nick it 2-1. Rangel with the inevitable goal for the visitors, but Faris and Amri will win it for the home faithful.
Main Photo: asiana.my