All hail the Lion Kings: How the Red Warriors turned from hunters to hunted

Darren Goon takes a look at what went right for the LionsXII (and everything that went wrong for Kelantan) in Saturday night's Malaysia FA Cup final...

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Sod’s law reassuringly decrees that whatever can go wrong, will. And go wrong it did, as Kelantan huffed and puffed for 90 minutes but were let down by that common bane of football – poor finishing. But let’s not take anything away from the LionsXII, who dug in and took their chances when as they presented an efficient exhibition of How to Win a Football Match 101. They’ll be taking the FA Cup across the border for the first time in its (relatively) brief 26-year history.

Playing in their fifth FA Cup final in seven seasons, this Kelantan side did not lack for experience. As such, the Lions were pegged as underdogs, with their young players and fully-Singaporean squad. Coach Fandi Ahmad had been there before, losing the 2013 final with JDT to the same opponents. He kept faith with much of the same XI that started the fiery semi-final second leg against Terengganu, with the only change being Faris Ramli for Raihan Rahman. His opposite number Azraai Khor also made just one change, as central defender Jonathan McKain returned from suspension.

Individual Mistakes

For a side that’s been there before, Kelantan oddly seemed to be overawed by the occasion (or perhaps it took them a while to get acquainted with a Bukit Jalil Stadium pitch that did not cut up on contact). Captain Marvel Badhri Radzi fluffed two early passes in 30 seconds, and his teammates were not faring much better.

Faris Ramli earned a corner off Nik Shahrul Azim Abdul Halim within the first minute, in the first of many individual battles he would later win. Khairul Amri sent it over the bar with a decent header.

Ultimately, the final was to be decided by two grave errors by Nik Shahrul. The full-back switched off in the seventh minute, allowing a polarising (Singaporeans called it exquisite; Malaysians thought it was a hopeful punt) through-ball by Izzdin Shafiq to reach Faris, who was ghosting in behind him, the last defender. The winger expertly stayed onside and drew Khairul Fahmi Che Mat off his line before rounding him to roll the ball into the empty net for the opening goal. It was his fifth strike this season, and arguably the most important.

The man affectionately nicknamed “Pok Nik” would lose his concentration again in the 82nd minute, failing to get enough purchase on an attempted backpass to Amiridzwan Taj while under little pressure. Sahil Suhaimi intercepted it and raced halfway up the pitch to score the deciding goal with a cracking shot (more on that later).

While it’s easy to put the blame sorely on Nik’s square shoulders, Kelantan’s forwards were equally at fault. Official match statistics were not available, but by my count, the Red Warriors had 20 shots at goal all night, nine on target and 11 off. Their opponents mustered just eight, but with six shots on target, exemplifying the Singaporeans’ success at making the most of their opportunities.

Brazilian striker Gilmar da Silva Filho was his side’s main culprit, sending six attempts painfully off target before finally managing to trouble Izwan Mahbud with five minutes to play. He would eventually accrue eight chances, as many as the entire LionsXII team managed all night. In general, Kelantan’s players lacked composure and rushed their shots, including a woefully surprising attempt by Noor Hazrul Mustapha from very, very far out on the stroke of half-time. Perhaps it could also be testament to Lions’ defending, that most of Kelantan’s shots came from outside the box.

To be fair, Erwin Carrillo was one man who did manage to do his job well. The Colombian fired all four of his attempts on target, but he was denied by the brilliant reflexes of Izwan and the buttocks of Nazrul Nazari.

Individual Heroics

LionsXII’s captain Izwan Mahbud refused to touch the FA Cup trophy in a pre-match press conference, telling The Star, “I just don’t want to touch it until I’ve won it.” 90 minutes of football later, he hoisted it alongside club captain Isa Halim in a wonderful gesture.

The goalkeeper deservingly earned the Man of the Match award for making save after save, single-handedly keeping the red tide at bay. Arguably, his most important one came in the 12th minute, sticking out a leg to deflect a low strike by Wan Zack past the post. Coming five minutes after Lions’ opening goal, it was Kelantan’s first attempt of the night, and set the tone for what was to be an exhausting night for Izwan. His right peg came to his rescue again in the 25th after Carrillo’s quick drag-back sent Madhu Mohana crashing to the floor.

Kelantan managed a striking 20-minute spell of dominance from the 53rd minute which saw them create ten chances and fire four shots at Izwan’s goal. But the captain stood firm, from rushing off his line in the 54th to clear a loose ball under pressure from Carrillo, to making a spectacular save to stop the Colombian’s swerving strike in the 64th.

The Red Warriors did manage a breakthrough just after the hour mark after the enterprising juggling skills of Gilmar set up Wan Zack to nudge past Izwan, but the 24-year-old’s sterling performance between the sticks kept his side in the game.