Fandi puts faith in Zulfahmi and Sufian

With leading forward Khairul Amri out, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad looks set to start Sufian Anuar in the lone striker slot with Zulfahmi Arifin in support as he plots to take down high-flying Pahang FA in the Malaysia Cup.

“We don’t have options up front,” Fandi told FourFourTwo on Monday at training.

Taking on arguably their strongest opponent in Group A at Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday evening, the national legend faces a dilemma on how to replace his injured striker.

With Amri out through a fractured cheekbone and Syafiq Zainal away on international duty with the Under-21s, Fandi only has Shahfiq Ghani and Sufian as alternatives.

Last night’s training session gave a glimpse of what could happen on Tuesday evening as he experimented by deploying Zulfahmi in an advanced role just behind Sufian, with Shahfiq set to play the role of an impact substitute.

“It’s very difficult to put Gabriel (Quak), Zul and Shahfiq upfront because we need battlers,” the coach explained.

“Zul played some games there (in the hole), so I asked him to be more roaming, make more passes and take shots. He's scored three goals (so far).

“Sufian is one of our top players when you talk about work rate and fighting spirit.”

While Sufian did score a hat-trick against the same opposition four months ago, they remain the only goals which he scored in the league thus far.

However Fandi is backing the goal-shy forward to hit the goal trail tonight.

“It’s about time he relax himself a bit and not get too pressured,” he said.

“Just enjoy, run and fight. Once the opportunity comes, he has to make it count.

“He needs to focus and he can help the team create chances. Once he gets that one goal, the confidence will come. That’s usually the case for strikers.

“We’ve been polishing his finishing this week a bit and he’s doing much better now. But on game day it’ll be different; people will put pressure and expect him to score.”

With Pahang oozing quality all over the pitch, from Twin Towers Zesh Rehman and Damion Stewart at the back along with the likes of Matias Conti and Dickson Nwakaeme, Fandi admitted it would be a tall order to beat them.

The situation is compounded by some other possible absentees – defensive lynchpin Baihakki Khaizan is a big doubt after sustaining a shoulder injury against Juventus, while Madhu Mohana, Faris Ramli and Samuel Benjamin played for their respective National Service units on Monday night.

Also worrying is the fact that the majority of the players were involved in the Juventus friendly just three days ago, with the players set to be pushed to their fitness limits.

“We have to fight,” Fandi said.

“It’s tough because the boys are still jaded. Everyone talked tonight and it’s a team effort.

“Even if you play only 60 minutes, you have to fight because we have limitations on the bench.

“On paper, Pahang have a very strong-looking line-up; strong defence, strong attack and fast wingers.

“They will pump all the long balls to the big men upfront.

“Also they’re very confident after their 4-0 win (against Johor Darul Ta’zim II). Hopefully we can do something.”

Despite the huge task, the 52-year-old expects nothing less than a win tonight.

 “This is do-or-die for us,” he said bluntly.

“We need to make sure we win, even a draw means our chances to make it through is very slim.”

Probable starting 11: Izwan Mahbud (GK); Madhu Mohana, Safuwan Baharudin, Afiq Yunos, Shakir Hamzah; Isa Halim (captain), Raihan Rahman; Gabriel Quak, Zulfahmi Arifin, Hafiz Sujad; Sufian Anuar

*The clash between the LionsXII and Pahang FA will kick off at 7.30pm tonight at Jalan Besar Stadium, with the game also being televised on Starhub’s SuperSports Arena (Channel 205).

Photo: Weixiang Lim