LionsXII 3 Terengganu FA 2: Safuwan the hero again
The Singaporean defender's aerial ability was on show for the second match in a row, as he headed home two goals in a match which coach Fandi Ahmad described as 'the greatest ever comeback for the LionsXII'.
Terengganu manager Ahmad Yusoff had restored prolific striker Paulo Rangel to his squad after serving a 3-month ban and the 2014 MSL Golden Boot winner was in scintillating form too as he twice put the Turtles ahead in the first half either side of a Sahil Suhaimi strike.
But that all came to naught as the hosts came roaring back in the second half with Safuwan's vital contribution after Rangel had been taken off.
This match was billed as a must-win for the LionsXII on the back of an away victory last week against JDT II, while Terengganu were desperate to kick start their poor cup campaign after a 5-0 humbling at Kedah.
With just seconds on the clock, Faris Ramli ghosted into the box from the left and was tripped by Vincent Bikana, but referee Wan Tarmizi was unimpressed and immediately signalled for a corner despite strong protests from the players in red.
However, it was Terengganu that took a shock lead in the 4th minute. From a free kick near the halfway line, it was a goal made in South America with Paulo Rangel volleying in from close range from Gustavo Lopez’s free kick.
LionsXII goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud would not have wanted a second look at the goal, after letting Rangel’s shot creep in at the near post for an easy opener.
Fandi's men looked shell-shocked after the early concession, failing to string passes together and resorting to long-ball tactics to the frustration of the home crowd.
Terengganu were happy to resort to time-wasting tactics, with goalkeeper Sharbinee Ramli twice being warned the referee.
The away side, inspired by a very steady Ismail Faruqi pulling the strings in midfield, almost doubled their lead in the 25th minute.
Lopez was again causing problems for the LionsXII and his whipped cross from the left was met with a first-time volley from Japanese striker Issey Nakajima-Farran which whizzed harmlessly past the post.
The equaliser eventually arrived 10 minutes before the break, and the LionsXII were finally rewarded for their endeavour.
Sahil Suhami continued his fine form as he sidestepped a defender and calmly fired a low drive past Sharbinee after Faris had played a through ball from the left.
The home fans at the Jalan Besar stadium roared in approval as Sahil wheeled away in celebration, but their joy was short-lived as Terengganu restored their lead two minutes before the break.
Ismail received a through ball from the left and with the whole stadium expecting him to fire away, he dummied the onrushing ball straight into the path of Rangel who made no mistake from close range.
Fandi’s men, however, responded positively and started the second half in similar fashion as the first.
From the restart, Sahil went close once again, squaring a low shot just wide off the post after right back Faritz Hameed had trotted forward and played a fantastic pass.
Terengganu were then pegged back again for the second time of the night, this time through last week’s two-goal hero Safuwan Baharudin.
The ex-Melbourne City player netted his third header in two games, rising the highest in a crowded Terengganu penalty box to float home a header from Madhu Mohana’s long throw.
Terengganu, however, were not too keen on pushing for the winner, and made defensive changes with Rangel coming off and Sharin Sapien brought on.
Goalkeeper Sharbinee continued his time-wasting antics and received a caution in the process.
Fandi knew anything less than three points would be considered a waste, and he rang in some offensive changes by bringing on Khairul Nizam and Christopher van Huizen with a quarter of the game to go.
Without Rangel’s aerial presence, it was centre back Hasmizan Kamarodin who came close to scoring for Terengganu.
Nakajima headed a stunning cross straight into the path of Kamarodin, whose outstretched leg was not enough to make any contact with the ball.
With the clock ticking down and the game seemingly heading for a stalemate, it was Safuwan who once again who powered his team to victory.
Substitute van Huizen created space down the right flank and crossing for the unmarked Safuwan to score his fourth header in two games at the far post.
The LionsXII are now in a firm position to progress to the next round as they maintained their formidable unbeaten home record at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
All photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo