Malaysia Super League | Jalan Besar Stadium | Sat 11 Apr | 7.45pm
The biggest game of the season for Fandi Ahmad’s boys.
So it’s two games down, four more to go before the LionsXII conclude the month of April. After a 3-2 defeat at Pahang FA last Saturday, they delivered the perfect riposte with a clean 2-0 victory over Johor Darul Ta’zim II in the first leg of the Malaysia FA Cup quarter-final in midweek.
While coach Fandi described it as their worst home performance of the season, there were some positives for the Singaporeans from the game – this was their third successive shutout in the Cup, having not conceded previously against PB Melayu Kedah and KL SPA Putrajaya.
That should give them a much-needed confidence booster turning their attentions back to the league where they have only kept one clean sheet in six games this season and are currently ninth in the table – six points behind leaders PDRM FA. Statistics do make for grim reading – only bottom-placed Sime Darby have conceded more than the 10 goals which they have leaked so far. They have also been winless since the opening day victory against PDRM, an unwanted streak which they will look to snap this Saturday as they host Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT).
The Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions have not been entirely convincing this season, but are slowly finding their feet. After a shock 1-0 loss at PDRM in their second game, they have put together a four-match unbeaten run – beating Sarawak FA and ATM FA 2-1 at home, while holding Selangor FA and Sime Darby to 1-1 away draws.
Three wins and two draws from the first six games means they are now fourth - tied with five other teams on 11 points, just one point off the pace. While they have scored only eight goals so far, things have been tight at the other end with the Marcos Antonio-led defence conceding just five goals – which makes them the best defensive team in the league.
In total, they have played 12 competitive matches this season (three more than the LionsXII) due to their continental commitments in the AFC Cup. However they have the luxury of a full week’s rest, having been knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round by holders Pahang FA on penalties after both teams could not be separated after 120 minutes.
Much has been made about the star-studded JDT side which includes the likes of Malaysian internationals Farizal Marlias, Safiq Rahim, Safee Sali, S Kunanlan, Amri Yahyah, Mahali Jasuli, as well as Singapore vice-captain Hariss Harun, but it could be their two new foreigners who will pose the biggest threats on Saturday night.
Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Luciano Figueroa, who destroyed the LionsXII at Jalan Besar last May, have been de-registered from the squad, with Sierra Leone forward Alhaji Kamara and Brazilian playmaker Patito Rodriguez being brought in on loan as their replacements.
Kamara, who scored 10 goals in 26 appearances for IFK Norrköping in the Swedish top-flight, will be looking to get off the mark in this big game, while Rodriguez will look to build on his superb debut performance against ATM last Saturday.
The 24-year-old Brazilian, who played alongside Neymar at Santos previously, showed why he is so highly-rated by setting up both goals for Amri and Safiq and was unlucky to not to get on the score sheet himself after a ripping attempt that came back off the post.
This duo must be stopped at all costs if the LionsXII want to pick up their second win of the season and get back on track.
The only major injury concern for the LionsXII is Khairul Amri. The 30-year-old had to be subbed off early against JDT II due to a groin strain and is unlikely to recover for this game.
Centre-back Madhu Mohana sustained a neck strain due to a bad fall after colliding with JDT II keeper Anis Faron, but should still be fit for duty.
On to better news: right-back Faritz Hameed and forward Khairul Nizam have now completed 180 minutes of football with no complications after returning from injury. Barring any last-minute mishaps, they should make the starting eleven again.
Hardman Raihan Rahman also made a successful comeback from the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, which has kept him out since August 2014, and should be in contention for a starting spot if Fandi decides to revert to a midfield three.
Shahdan Sulaiman is still working on his fitness, while Afiq Yunos and Samuel Benjamin remain on the long-term injury list.
Player to Watch: Izzdin Shafiq
Izzdin has been a vital cog in the engine room since rejoining the LionsXII this season.
Showing a high work rate to track down opposing midfielders and provide assurance with his intelligent use of the ball, the 24-year-old has combined seamlessly with Firdaus Kasman to form a dynamic central midfield partnership.
His presence in the middle of the park will be crucial in shutting down the likes of former teammate Hariss, Malaysia captain Safiq and rising starlet Junior Eldstal, and prevent them from distribute the ball to Patito and Kamara upfront.
In Jalan Besar's away dugout this weekend will be the familiar figure of Bojan Hodak, who is a respected figure across both sides of the Causeway.
Earning admirers with his uncompromising and no-nonsense style of defending while playing in the S.League with Balestier Central (now Balestier Khalsa) and Jurong FC back in the late 1990s, the 43-year-old went on to achieve the lot in Malaysian football as a coach.
He groomed many notable players like Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, Nazrin Nawi and Azamuddin Akil with the now-defunct UPB-MyTeam back in 2006 before leaving for spells in Cambodia and China. Upon his return in 2012, he guided Kelantan FA to a historic treble of the Malaysia FA Cup, Malaysia Cup and MSL that year before retaining the FA Cup the following year.
Despite only joining JDT halfway through last season, Hodak wasted no time in introducing a new playing style which led to the title triumph and a place in the Malaysia Cup final.
Facts and Figures
- JDT have the upper hand when it comes to head-to-head records – in eight matches, they have won five times while the LionsXII only tasted victory once. The other two matches ended up in draws.
- The solitary win for the LionsXII came in April 2012 when JDT was still known as Johor FC. Amri’s goal was enough to separate the two sides in a league clash at Pasir Gudang.
- Hariss scored against his current side while donning LionsXII colours in a 2-2 draw at Larkin in the 2013 season.
- Both teams’ top scorers have scored four in all competitions so far – Safiq has three in the league and one in the AFC Cup, while Amri has one in the league and three in the FA Cup.
FFT.com Editor Zee Ko: Bojan Hodak's scouting trip to JBS on Wednesday could prove the difference. Fandi's lads will not know what to make of Patito. 1-3 to JDT.
Gary Koh: A 2-2 draw. The LionsXII have been unbeaten at home and their artificial turf has been a tremendous advantage, but JDT have an upper hand as they have played here earlier this season.
Kenneth Tan: Fandi’s boys could struggle to find the cutting edge upfront if Amri does not recover. A 1-1 draw, with perhaps Faris Ramli scoring.
Yahoo Sport's Teng Kiat: 1-2 with JDT sneaking the victory. Fandi will be expecting a better performance, but fatigue is likely to affect the home team while the visitors have been in good form recently.
Berita Harian's Johor Sports Correspondent Rizar Mohd Noor: Johor to win 1-2. JDT have already played on the artificial turf against Balestier, and my only worry is if they get too comfortable and overconfident, the LionsXII might punish them with their discipline and commitment.
Photo: Weixiang Lim & asiana.my