It was a heartbreaking Saturday night for fans of the LionsXII as they fell to a last-gasp winner against Kelantan FA. FFT Singapore’s Kenneth Tan tries to pick the bones from a shattering defeat...
The three points were very much there for the taking, especially after a dominant display in the first 45 minutes. However the LionsXII contrived to throw it all away with two silly errors after the break. Defending for those two conceded goals will have to be described as shambolic, at the very least. Considering that these were players who had experience playing in international competitions like the AFF Suzuki Cup and the Southeast Asian Games together, there was little excuse for such defensive clangers on the night.
Three players were involved in the build-up to the Kelantan equalizer – left-back Shakir Hamzah and centre back Safuwan Baharudin were racing back, while goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud came rushing off his line. Considering the numbers they had back there, it should have been adequarte to cope with Ahmad Fakri's late run to chase down that innocuous long ball. However, there was little communication between the trio during that situation. Perhaps one should have called out to the other to clear the danger and that goal could have been averted. It came down to who wanted it the most in the end, as Fakri bursts past the two defenders and clipped the ball beyond Izwan.
Isa Halim was the unlikely culprit as the second goal arrived in injury time. One of the team's most experienced players, the LionsXII skipper was at fault as he failed to play to the whistle. As another harmless-looking long ball came looping overhead, the 27-year-old simply stopped running while raising his right hand to appeal for an offside call that never came. Francis Forkey Doe played on, got past Izwan and slotted home gleefully into an empty net for the winner – the second time in 3 years that he had inflicted a home defeat for the LionsXII.
Whatever has been said about those mistakes though, things could and should have been very different if they had taken those chances created in the first half.
At the risk of starting to sound like a broken record, this has been a perennial problem for Fandi Ahmad’s side. It started as early as the season opener away against Pahang FA, it happened again in the 2-1 FA Cup second-round defeat to the same opposition, we saw that in that uninspiring stalemate against Terengganu FA in the last home game. LionsXII were wasteful in those games, and were one again profligate in front of goal on Saturday night. Fans who were in full voice for much of the match were left wondering how their team had managed to throw the game away after such an impressive first half.
Fandi’s boys played crisp short passes on the ground, went on the counter whenever possible and created a glut of chances which they should have buried at least a couple of times. Khairul Amri had a couple of sighters, Afiq Yunos just missed getting on the end of Shahfiq Ghani’s free kick, Faris saw his feeble shot being deflected into Kelantan keeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat’s arms while Gabriel Quak saw his shot blocked after a mazy run down the right. They did put one away on 26 minutes when Amri ghosted in between the two Kelantan centre-backs to divert home Shahfiq’s cross, but that was all the LionsXII have to show for a dominant first half.
A one-goal lead is always dangerous in football and it proved just that as Kelantan turned the game around after the break. The hosts were never quite the same again after Ahmad Fakri Saakrani’s 51st-minute equaliser and Doe was on hand to stab home a late, late winner.
However with all that said, positives can be taken from Firdaus Kasman’s display in the middle of the park. After an impressive debut performance in Selayang where he helped the LionsXII to a 2-1 away win against ATM FA, coach Fandi Ahmad chose to keep the faith in the on-loan Tampines Rovers playmaker for this clash. That turned out to be a wise decision.
In former Egyptian international Mohamed Shawky and Malaysian veteran Badhri Radzi, Kelantan were always going to be combative in central midfield. Since Isa is still effectively working his way back into full fitness, mobile players are required to stifle the duo in the middle of the park. Boy, did Kasman prove his worth with an excellent no-frills display. Keeping Shawky and Badhri largely quiet throughout the affair with a number of meaty challenges, the 26-year-old also kept the ball moving with simple passes which initiated a number of good counter-attacks. If that was not enough, Firdaus also played his part in the first goal by releasing Faris Ramli down the left. It was an almost flawless performance from the midfielder who showed that he deserves to be a starter over Zulfahmi Arifin.
All in all, the loss was indeed heartbreaking for players and fans alike. Isa Halim put his hand up like a true leader, apologising to teammates fans on social media after the game for his mistake at the death. For now, the LionsXII captain, his teammates and coach Fandi will have to sort things out in the days to come before taking on newly-promoted Sarawak FA in Kuching - a place where they have struggled to get results over the years. An improved performance is a requirement, but a positive result on the day is starting to look like a necessity too.