Malaysia Super League | Stadium Shah Alam | Sat 18 Apr | 8.45pm
The battle between traditional rivals.
So it’s three games down, another three to go before the LionsXII conclude their busiest month of the season so far.
A 3-2 defeat away at Pahang FA was not the best way to start off with, but they have since bounced back with two credible results at home – overcoming Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) II 2-0 in the first leg of the Malaysia FA Cup quarter-final last Wednesday before holding defending champions JDT to a stalemate in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) three days later.
While it was laudable to collect a point against their nouveau-riche neighbours, it has helped little in their bid to rise up the rankings. That was the LionsXII's fourth draw in their last five games and has extended their winless run to six in the league. They are currently ninth in the table – six points off leaders Selangor FA, whom they will face this weekend.
The Red Giants, who last won the title in 2010, have hit form lately after a slow start to the season. After failing to win their first three games (losing 2-0 at Terengganu FA before consecutive 1-1 draws against Pahang FA and JDT), they strung together four straight wins (thrashing PDRM FA 4-1 away, overcoming Sarawak 2-0 and Sime Darby 3-2 at home before beating ATM FA 3-1 away) to top the table on 14 points.
While Felda United and Terengganu FA have the same number of points, their superior goal difference of +6 means they go into match week 8 as the leader of the pack. Losing key players at both ends (goalkeeper Farizal Marlias, who kept the most number of clean sheets and hot shot Paulo Rangel, who was last season’s top scorer with 16 goals) in the off-season looked like a big blow, but it looks like they are doing okay without them.
They currently have the third-best defence in the league behind JDT and Pahang, with new No. 1 Norazlan Razali letting in just eight goals. At the other end, they have the second-best attack behind PDRM with a tally of 14 strikes.
Surprisingly though, new Brazilian recruits Leandro Dos Santos and Guilherme de Paula have only contributed a goal each. Instead, it is local forward Afiq Azmi who is the top scorer with four, while Indonesian winger Andik Vermansyah is close behind with three.
The duo have to be stopped if the LionsXII want to snap their six-match winless streak.
There are no fresh injury concerns for the LionsXII going into this game. Khairul Amri has recovered well from the groin strain which kept him out against JDT and looks set to return to the starting eleven.
Hard man Raihan Rahman completed his first 90 minutes in eight months the last time out and it will be interesting to see if Fandi retains him in the line-up at captain Isa Halim's expense.
Shahdan Sulaiman is nearing full fitness, while Afiq Yunos and Samuel Benjamin remain on the treatment table.
Player to Watch: Hafiz Abu Sujad
With Shakir Hamzah back at the Courts Young Lions this season, Hafiz has been give a chance to seal the left-back spot for his own – an opportunity which he has grabbed with both hands so far.
After a disappointing AFF Suzuki Cup campaign in which he conceded a last-gasp penalty against Malaysia, leading to Singapore’s premature exit in the group stages, the 24-year-old has showed signs of maturing into a fine defender this season.
Last Saturday's battle against old nemesis Amri Yahyah was a case in point. He hardly gave the latter room to manoeuvre and even found time to produce a goal-line clearance to prevent his side from falling behind. For his all-action display, he was named in FourFourTwo’s MSL Team of the Week.
He will need to do more of the same when he comes up against Andik this Saturday. The diminutive 23-year-old has been one of the standout performers this season for the Red Giants and was directly involved in two of the three goals against ATM last week.
In coach Fandi’s opposite dugout will be Mehmet Durakovic, who spent four successful years in between 1995 to 1998 with the Red Giants as a player – winning three successive Malaysia Cups in the process.
After concluding his playing career and venturing into coaching back in his native Australia, the 49-year-old returned to Shah Alam last year to succeed Irfan Bakti in the Selangor hot seat. His debut year was a decent one, having kept the side in the title race till the final day and leading them to a spot in the last eight of the Malaysia Cup – a solid foundation which he is looking to build on for this sophomore year.
Facts and Figures
- The LionsXII have the slight upper hand when it comes to head-to-head records – in six matches, they have won twice while Selangor only tasted victory once. The other three matches ended up in draws.
- The solitary win for the Red Giants came last April at Shah Alam where a Steve Pantelidis goal was enough to separate the two sides.
- Pantelidis’ replacement, Robert Cornthwaite, is the tallest player in the MSL at 1.99m.
- The LionsXII have never beaten Selangor at Shah Alam – drawing 1-1 and 0-0 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, before the 1-0 reverse last season.
- 12 out of the 17 goals (in all competitions) for Selangor this season have been scored in the second half.
- Both teams’ top scorers have scored four in all competitions so far – Amri has one in the league and three in the FA Cup, Ahmad Hazwan Bakri has two in the league and two in the FA Cup, while Afiq Azmi’s goals all came in the league.
FFT.com Editor Zee Ko: The LionsXII aren't doing too well this season, but it could be worse if not for all the draws. Expect it to continue this weekend with the teams battling to a 1-1 draw.
Gary Koh: 0-0. It will take another massive effort to get a point against in-form Red Giants, but a first away league win remains elusive.
Kenneth Tan: Looks like a tough match on paper for the LionsXII but their confidence should be boosted by the last two results. Fandi’s boys to steal it 1-0.
The Straits Times' Deepanraj Ganesan: 2-2. I'm tipping the LionsXII to grab goals on the counter but their own defence will not be able to contain Afiq Azmi and co.
Main Photo: Zaid Ayid/asiana.my & Weixiang Lim/FFT