The LionsXII will be hoping to embark on a successful Malaysia Cup run this season, but first Kenneth Tan attempts to break down their Group A opponents...
It has been a wretched 2014 for the LionsXII and fans of the Singapore representative side could be forgiven for looking ahead to the Malaysia Cup for some much-needed respite.
The recently dethroned Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions have been handed a tricky draw which sees them grouped together with both Malaysia FA Cup finalists in Pahang FA and Felda United, while Malaysian Premier League (MPL) side Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) II have a certain Shahril Ishak in their ranks.
The LionsXII have progressed past the group stages in both years of their existence, reaching the semi-finals in 2012 and quarter-finals in 2013 – only to be denied progress on both occasions by ATM FA.
However as last year proved, navigating through the group stages is not as simple a process as it might seem to be. Finding themselves in what at first seemed like a manageable group last year, the Singaporeans somehow found themselves on the brink of elimination after only one point out of their first three games against Perak FA, Sarawak FA and Kedah FA. Fortunately, they were saved by a timely return to form as three straight wins helped them finish second in the group.
Fans of the LionsXII will hope not to go through such an emotional roller-coaster ride once again. So what are the chances of the team escaping unscathed this time round? We take a look at the three teams they will face in the group stages.
Finished 3rd in 2014 Malaysian Super League, 2014 Malaysia FA Cup winners, 2014 Malaysian Charity Shield winners, 2013 Malaysia Cup winners
It doesn’t get any harder than this as the LionsXII face off against the holders of the FA Cup. The past couple of years have seen the rise of the Tok Gajah, with their continual improvement raising many eyebrows in the Malaysian football fraternity.
Promoted to the MSL in 2013, they did well to finish 5th out of 12 teams and managed to pick up the Malaysia Cup after stunning the much-fancied Kelantan FA in the final. That was only the start though as they continued their success this year by lifting the Malaysia FA Cup as well as achieving a third-place finish in the MSL, seven points behind eventual winners JDT.
Boasting the likes of big Nigerian forward Dickson Nwakaeme, wily Argentinean striker Matias Conti and Malaysian international Azamuddin Akil, they certainly have a strike force to be feared - the team are the third-highest scorers in the league with 36 goals in 22 matches.
In midfield, there is the electrifying R Gopinathan, as well as classy left footers in Hafiz Kamal and Faizol Hussein. Playmaker Azidan Sairudin has also impressed with his thrust from midfield to go with his immaculate hairdo.
Of course there is the much talked-about ‘Twin Towers’ at the back, Zesh Rehman and Damion Stewart, who are always hard to break down. All in all, Zainal Abidin Hassan has a well-balanced squad which the LionsXII will find tough opponents.
Fandi Ahmad’s boys suffered two consecutive defeats to them earlier in the season (one away in the league, one at home in the FA Cup second round), before paying sweet revenge with a 4-1 thrashing when they visted Jalan Besar Stadium in mid-April.
Having said that, that emphatic victory was inflated somewhat by three goals in the last 11 minutes and it would be dangerous to read too much into that result. Given the quality of the opposition, avoiding defeat in both head-to-head encounters will be key in progressing out of this group.
Runners-up in 2014 Malaysian Premier League, 2014 Malaysian FA Cup finalists
The Fighters are no slouches despite playing in the MPL this season. Relegation from the MSL last season seemed to be the wake-up call which the side needed as they seek to overturn their fortunes this year.
In came experienced coach Irfan Bakti along with a number of shrewd recruits – former ATM keeper Farizal Harun, former Malaysian internationals Shukor Adan and Indra Putra Mahayuddin, as well as ex-Semen Padang forward Edward Junior Wilson. These new arrivals immediately transformed the side as they started playing an attractive brand of attacking football. A good pre-season tour of Singapore which saw them stay unbeaten against the likes of S.League champions Tampines Rovers, Hougang United and Courts Young Lions was just the prelude as they went on to finish second in the MPL – securing promotion back into the MSL for the 2015 season.
They certainly do not lack firepower up front, finishing as the second-highest scorers in the league with 58 goals in 22 matches. Wilson picked up the Golden Boot Award with 19 goals, while Indra chipped in with 10 goals from midfield.
They could have capped off their spectacular league campaign with some silverware, having dominated the first 80 minutes of the Malaysian FA Cup against Pahang. However two goals conceded in the last 10 minutes saw the trophy going to the Tok Gajah instead.
With the turnaround this season, it would take a mammoth of a task to replicate the 4-0 home win a year ago en route to lifting the 2013 MSL title. Although the LionsXII are unbeaten in their last four outings against this opposition, records count for nothing against a revitalized Felda outfit. Having said that, fans should expect nothing less than a victory at home, while any points from the away encounter would be a bonus.
Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) II
Finished 5th in 2014 Malaysia Premier League
Out of the three teams, JDT II looks the weakest on paper. Despite harbouring promotion hopes prior to the start of the season, they were unable to maintain their consistency throughout their MPL campaign. Eventually they finished in fifth place, 15 points adrift of the promotion slots.
However they got a reprieve of some sorts as they qualified for the Malaysia Cup after upsetting MSL side Selangor PKNS 2-1 in the playoffs. Despite being the lowest-ranked team in this competition, they should have a point to prove against the big guns.
And of course there is the Shahril Ishak factor. Having spent with two years with the LionsXII, the Singapore national team captain was lured by the JDT II project - the brainchild of the Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Idris. After enduring a mixed campaign which saw him fail to hit double figures, the 30-year-old will be out to prove that he is no spent force. This is the first time Shahril is facing his former colleagues at club level and it will be interesting to see how Baihakki Khaizan and company cope with that awkwardness once out on the pitch.
But speaking of which, Baihakki may not even feature at all in the two head-to-head encounters! Given that the 30-year-old is joining JDT II next season and both JDT I and JDT II are managed by the Crown Prince, he could be ‘forced’ to sit out these two games – just like how he did against JDT I in the league in May. That could mean a reshuffle which sees Afiq Yunos pairing up with either Madhu Mohana or Safuwan Baharudin at the back.
Delving back into the JDT II ranks, there are also useful players up front like Malaysian international Mohd Zaquan Adha and Spanish forward Braulio Nobrega who has played for the likes of Atletico Madrid, Getafe and Real Mallorca in the Spanish La Liga.
However, it will be a huge surprise if they can take anything from their two games with the LionsXII. Maximum points from these two games should be the target for Fandi and his boys, if they want to progress out of their group.
*If the LionsXII manage to progress out of the group stages, they will take on either Selangor FA, Sime Darby FC, PDRM or T-Team FC in the two-legged quarter finals