LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad was in a bullish mood as he spoke to the media during his first official press conference of the season after the team's unveiling on Tuesday...
How do you feel the team prepared coming into this new season?
We prepared very well during the pre-season tournament. Some matches here and there, some in Malaysia as well. Especially in Maldives, where we played very well but we did not win the title. However, it is important to see the team work very hard as a group, as a unit. I can see the hunger in them, we are well prepared and barring any injuries, we hope that we can have a full team this Saturday.
What is the goal this season? Last season, you said it was finishing in the top three. Are there any changes this season?
When you go into competition, you definitely want to win something. But to be realistic, we are aiming quite high again. We are aiming for the top three, even though we have a new squad. I believe the youngsters will add more fire and maybe experience and of course, the Malaysian teams are much stronger now but we are not worried about that. It is all about teamwork and I believe the boys will give their best. What we saw in Maldives gave us some chance to work on them and see that they can improve. Hopefully there are no injuries because football is about injuries, the defence is very thin and that is our main worry.
Safuwan Baharudin's big move is great for the player but what does it mean for the LionsXII?
It gives a chance for others to have a breakthrough and get into the first eleven and of course if you notice, most of last year's starting back four are not around. People like Shakir (Hamzah) and Safuwan are gone, and Faritz (Hameed) is out injured. Hopefully Mahdu (Mohana) and Afiq (Yunos) can carry on. Madhu has been here for the last three to four seasons so he can be considered a senior player. Even though he is very young, I think he played very well and with Isa in front of him, I believe we have a good chance of chasing the dream.
Last season, one of the reasons for poor results was because you couldn't get the players you wanted. Will there be anymore such excuses this season?
Not really, we will love to have more experienced players but we do have more promising youngsters. Players like Sahil (Suhaimi), (Chris) van Huizen and of course we have Wahyudi (Wahid) who has experience playing in the S-League [and can play] in the center or right back. But generally, excuses are not typical because last year we lacked fire power. But this year, things are a bit different, the defence needs to be tightened. Even though we lost Safuwan, I am happy for him to go because this is good for his career and I believe other players will step up in place of [him]. So we have got to be very strong in defence and not only in attack. Last year we had a very strong defence but a poor attack so hopefully we [can have a strong team ethic].
Do you see Jalan Besar Stadium being a fortress again? Is that key to the team doing well again this season?
It will take time because we have seven to eight new players and it's just too bad we lost three key players even before we have started playing – Faris (Ramli), Raihan (Rahman) and Shahdan (Sulaiman) but that doesn't worry us. I believe the others will step up and it will be good for them to come up and play against better opponents and better foreign players. Our opponents have four new foreign players but I believe we are up to par.
You said one of the most important things is to develop young players but you need to provide results. Is it difficult to balance the two?
It is definitely it is not easy. As much as we want results , we want to also develop young players. If you don't give the young players a chance, there will be no more National Team in future because we depended on the older players. But at the same time, we hope that these players [will be] up to the challenge and live up to a new level. Because even some new players like Chris (van Huizen), for instance, he played barely three to four games in the S.League but this is a big exposure [for him]. I believe he has the guts and I believe he is a raw diamond. I think he will be one of our key players this year.
Last year you said you did not have good strikers to score the goals. Do you think the combination of the two young strikers, Sahil and Faris, together with Amri can deliver the goals this time?
It depends on the team's tactics on game day because sometimes we play with two strikers, sometimes three strikers but away games we will deploy one striker. We hope to have Sahil and Faris because they are involved in the SEA Games. We cant promise that they will be there for every game, that means theres a chance for Sufian (Anuar), (Khairul) Nizam and even Chris (van Huizen) and Gabriel (Quak) to step up. Whether they can step up, I cannot promise because they are not here most of the time. But I can promise you that we will go for goal every game we play.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo