After playing bit-part roles in the LionsXII's 2013 league triumph, first team centre-backs Zulfahmi Arifin and Madhu Mohana are determined to bring the 2015 Malaysia FA Cup back home this weekend.
2 July 2013 was a historic day for the LionsXII as they lifted the MSL title in front of a capacity crowd after beating Felda United 4-0.
Madhu exchanged high fives with the rest of his teammates after coming on as a 56th-minute substitute for Faritz Hameed at right back, while Zulfahmi, who was not named in the matchday squad, trudged onto the field thereafter to join the celebrations.
Winning the league was a fantastic achievement for everyone associated with the club, but the pair knew at the back of their minds that they were only peripheral figures that year. Madhu featured a total of four times in the 21-game long season while Zulfahmi went one better.
Fast forward almost two years and the duo could be part of a silverware-winning squad again albeit as first team regulars. Madhu has missed only two out of the 16 games in all competitions, while his defensive partner missed out on three.
Speaking to FourFourTwo on Wednesday evening after training at Geylang Field, the duo said that winning the FA Cup would mean much more to them than 2013's league triumph.
“Obviously, the feeling will be different,” Zulfahmi said.
“When you win something, of course you’re happy but you won’t feel the excitement as much when you’re always on the bench.
“This year, I’ve been involved much more and getting more opportunities although it is not my position. I’m really proud to be playing all this while and we have to stick together in order to win the Cup.”
“Definitely it’ll be more special because I’ve been playing a lot this year,” Madhu echoed.
“In my four years here, we have not won a cup, so it’ll be great for me if I can play my part to help the team achieve that.”
Halting the Red Warriors
The task will not come any easier as they have to contend with Kelantan’s three-pronged strike force of Erwin Carrillo, Gimar and Austin Amutu. The trio are responsible for half of the 20 goals which they have scored in all competitions.
However the centre-back pairing is keen to learn from a similar experience in the semi-finals where they faced Terengganu FA’s Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, Paulo Rangel and Issey Nakajima-Farran.
“I think facing Kelantan will be similar to facing Terengganu,” Zulfahmi said.
“They play the same kind of direct football with big and strong foreign forwards, but we are quite used to that when playing in the league. We just need to focus and not give them space.
“The main difficulty is our physique because we will surely lose out in that aspect. We need to hold and not go on to the other side because they might just turn us.”
“Even though we conceded three the last time round, I think we did okay,” Madhu insisted.
“It’s going to be a hard task for the defence again and I’ve been doing my homework by watching some of Kelantan’s match highlights on YouTube. So far the morale is high and the desire is good, so if we work together and help each other, we can overcome all these obstacles.”
There were worries as to who would fill Afiq Yunos’s void at the heart of defence after the defender sustained an ACL injury away on international duty in late March, but it was soon allayed by Zulfahmi's swift conversion to central defence – something which even the man himself was surprised with.
“Yes, I had never played there before except for friendly matches,” he said.
“But so far I’ve been adapting well and somehow I’ve been managing to get into position to tackle the man and get behind the ball. It’s actually easier than playing in midfield where you have to both attack and defend.
“The partnership with Madhu has been good and we have the understanding; we communicate a lot either through shouting at each other or hand signals because sometimes we cannot hear each other during the game.”
“Everyone was shocked when coach (Fandi Ahmad) decided to put Zul there but I think we’re doing okay lah,” Madhu said.
“After a few games, we got comfortable playing with each other and we do complement each other in terms of our strengths and weaknesses. But of course there’s always room for improvement; we can still do better in terms of covering each other and communicating more.”
Coping at Bukit Jalil
A near 90,000 crowd will be waiting to greet the LionsXII on Saturday night at the Bukit Jalil Stadium, with the majority expected to be Kelantan fans.
Having been on the bench when the Singapore national team faced off against Malaysia at the same venue in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup opener, Zulfahmi knows how intimidating the matchday atmosphere will be.
“I remember going to Bukit Jalil with the national team and I can even feel the jitters from the bench,” he recalled.
“You have to shout if you want to talk on the bench because you cannot even hear each other! The good thing is that I’ve adapted well to playing away because I’m good at ignoring.
“Whenever the opposition fans shout or boo at us, it won’t really affect me and I will just focus on my game. These are things that we have to deal with and I’m sure it’s going to be a memorable occasion for all of us.”
Photo: Football Association of Singapore