Five things we learnt from LionsXII 2-2 Johor Darul Takzim II: Is it all over now?

 FFT's Nigel Chin was at Jalan Besar Stadium as the LionsXII flattered to deceive once again despite an early opener against Johor Darul Takzim II in their Malaysia Cup encounter...

1) Nizam serves up another reminder of his talent

Khairul Nizam has not played regularly for the past three years, yet LionsXII head coach Fandi Ahmad gambled on selecting him in such a crucial match. And based on his 45 minutes of action against JDT II alone, it is obvious that Khairul Nizam remains LionsXII’s most talented (and perhaps frustrating) striker.

Tipped by many to be the next Fandi Ahmad in his early years, Nizam showed exactly what his team was missing out – a striker with the ability to hold up play as well as wreak havoc in their opponent’s half.  It was Nizam who created the opening goal with a brilliant cut back after holding off defenders in the penalty box, but three surgeries (two ACL injuries and one meniscus) in the last couple of years means the striker is still has a long way off from top fitness.

Fandi was of course happy to see his forward come through half a game unscathed. “I’m happy for Nizam. He did a good job working with the physiotherapists Sasha and Fizah. He wanted to come back and try helping the team.  In the 45 minutes, he created some good chances, made some good runs, kept the ball, and linked up the play but after that his knee couldn’t take anymore.

“We must see his condition after the game. Hopefully everything will be okay and he can play in the next two games again.”

For the good of Singapore football, Nizam has hopefully left his injury problems behind once and for all and can now fulfill his potential.

2) LionsXII too vulnerable to the counter

If there’s anything more apparent than ever after the double matches against JDT II, it is that the LionsXII are unable to deal with counter-attacks.

Adopting a soak-and-strike strategy in both games, Johor Darul Tak’zim II constantly hounded the Singapore side’s defence on the break, and three of the four goals came in exactly those situations.

Despite not being able to match the Malaysian Premier League team’s attackers pace for pace, the LionsXII defence chose to play a high line, allowing JDT II to break the offside trap consistently with the Singaporeans getting caught out of position time and again. 

While the absence of the experienced Baihakki Khaizan is a factor, Safuwan Baharudin and company should have learnt from their mistakes in the first match. They didn’t, and have only themselves to blame for not being to secure the vital three points.  

3) Refereeing standards in Malaysian football still not up to par

“Do penalties exist in football games?”

That was the damning verdict from Fandi on the refereeing performances in the Malaysian Super League and Malaysia Cup so far this year.

Against JDT II, referee Samsudin Ibrahim pointed to the spot after JDT II goalkeeper Zulfadhli Mohamed came off his line and fouled Faris Ramli inside the box and was immediately awarded a yellow card for the late challenge.

However, after making that decision, he then consulted his assistant, who had flagged for offside on Shahfiq Ghani even though the LionsXII forward was not involved in the play at all, and overturned the penalty decision.

Replays suggested that the penalty call was a legitimate one but much like previous occasions this year, the referee once again made a wrong decision. Games are often won or lost on important moments like such...

Either way, the LionsXII penalty drought at Jalan Besar Stadium continues this year.

4) LionsXII more comfortable with direct football

After less than desired results in the previous games, Fandi indicated he would throw caution to wind and do what it took to win. And true to his word, the LionsXII went back to the playing style that won them the MSL last year – direct football that focused on wing play.

This year, Fandi had been trying to get his charges to play a short-passing game, modeled on Singapore head coach Bernd Stange's favoured game plan. All year long however, the LionsXII have been struggling to impose themselves in games. 

Against JDT II, the hosts seemed much more comfortable with the direct ball, which was helped by Nizam’s ability to win headers upfront. The returning striker's withdrawal and a change in style at the half time break back to a short passing game meant that the team were unconvincing once again.

Former Singapore international Rafi Ali had pointed out earlier this year, “Some players are struggling now, because before that it was mostly about direct football, but now the same players are struggling this year with this expressive football. It is good to play expressive football, but clearly some of them are struggling a lot.”

Perhaps, a return to familiar ways could do a world of good for the Singapore side.

5) Almost mission impossible for LionsXII

While the LionsXII draw means they are still not out of the running to qualify for the knock-out stages from Group A, they do have to rely on a few factors to make it out of the group stages.

Following Pahang FA’s 2-0 win over Felda United, they now lead Group A with 9 points. The two Malaysia Premier League teams – Felda and JDT II, are second and third on 7 and 4 points respectively, and LionsXII are rooted to the bottom with just 2 points.

For LionsXII to qualify, they need to win their remaining two games against both Felda and Pahang (both away), while hoping JDT II draws their match against Felda and lose against Pahang.

It remains mathematically possible, but it will be a very tough ask.

Photos: Weixiang Lim