Five things we learnt from LionsXII 0-0 Felda United: Hosts still lacking bite
1. Fans stay away as LionsXII struggle
While previous attendance figures towards the end of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) could have been chalked down to the World Cup effect, fans continued to stay away as the LionsXII once again failed to fill up the 7,500 capacity Jalan Besar Stadium.
Despite the lack of major football action anywhere else around the world, only 4,199 fans turned up on Wednesday evening for this Malaysia Cup opener, a far cry from the 6,000 average in 2013.
It appears that fans still have reservations about the LionsXII’s ability to perform, and the 0-0 result would not have done anything to diffuse those doubts. And with the LionsXII slated for a move to the newly constructed 55,000-seater Sports Hub in a bid to revive the Kallang Roar, Singapore's lone representative in Malaysia competitions could potentially play in a largely empty dome.
2. LionsXII struggle to create chances
This has been an issue all year long for Fandi and the LionsXII. While there is no doubt that the players in the setup are all talented individuals, it has been a different story when it comes to teamwork.
Once again, the final ball was lacking and the fact that only one shot was registered on target (Shahfiq Ghani’s effort midway in the second half) shows that something is just not clicking in the attacking third.
What has not helped is the fact that the LionsXII have not been able to train as a team for the past couple of months due to National Team call ups as well as National Service commitments. But should this persist, there is definitely a danger that they might just exit the Malaysia Cup at the group stage, a dramatic fall from grace for a team that won the MSL just last year.
For the sake of the fans, the LionsXII players will hope to quickly find their scoring touch and creativity again.
3. Felda's pressing game effective, but fitness an issue
Felda United look a good attacking side on paper. They scored 58 goals in just 22 matches en route to clinching promotion to the MSL earlier, and boast Malaysian Premier League (MPL) top scorer Edward Wilson, who contributed 19 goals in 14 games.
However, it is their pressing game and ability to win the ball in the opponents' half that is the true reason for their attacking prowess. Against the LionsXII, the Felda players were constantly kept the Singapore side's midfielders and defenders hemmed back with constant pressure when the LionsXII were in possession.
It was different story in the second half though. The visitors looked visibly tired, and started to play a containing game instead — a clear indication that they were unable to keep up the energy levels required to press their opponents constantly.
Head coach Irfan Bakti admitted that “4 of my players are above 33. That’s why maybe after 75 minutes they were too tired and I told them to just contain. They are not conditioned to press the full game”.
If Felda are looking to make it through the group stages, they will need to work on improving on their fitness levels, especially with games against FA Cup winners Pahang and a Shahril Ishak-led JDT II on the horizon.
4. Zulfahmi Arifin, Singapore's answer to Andrea Pirlo
Jeered consistently for his lacklustre performances at the start of the season, Zulfahmi’s performance tonight suggest that he has turned the corner. Adopting a deep-lying role in the heart of the engine room, ‘Zul’ took on the role as the team’s primary playmaker, hitting Andrea Pirlo-esque passes as he found wingers Gabriel Quak, Hafiz Sujad and later Nazrul Nazari and Faris Ramli in space with ease.
It is fair to say that no Singapore player possesses the same expansive range of passing he has so Zulfahmi has a clear path ahead to cement himself as a Singapore international. But of course, he still has a long way to go as LionsXII head coach and Singapore footballing legend Fandi Ahmad pointed out. “Zulfahmi’s passes are not bad, they are quite good but he has to do more. I thought first half he sent a number of good passes but he needs to push forward more to support Shahfiq Ghani. He can do more in terms of attacking. He works very hard, but he must realize his true potential and ability.”
But of course, with the midfielder selected in the Singapore Selection side to play Juventus on Saturday, there can be no one better to learn from than the true master of the art — Pirlo himself.
5. Wingers Faris Ramli and Nazrul Nazari should start against Pahang
Both Faris Ramli and Nazrul Nazari started the game on the bench when the LionsXII kicked off against Felda. In their place in the starting eleven were Gabriel Quak and utility man Hafiz Sujad.
While Hafiz is technically adept, he does not possess the pace of both Faris and Nazrul. And with the LionsXII tactical plan emphasizing on diagonal balls down to the flanks, Hafiz struggled to exert influence in the game. As for Quak, while he has the technical ability and the pace, his form suggests a lack of confidence currently, with his missed sitter in the first half summing it up.
On the other hand, the duo of Faris Ramli and Nazrul Nazari came on to inject energy into the side, and caused trouble for the Felda fullbacks. Faris Ramli in particular posed numerous problems with his trickery and linked up well with left back Shakir Hamzah and striker Shahfiq Ghani.
One wonders what might have been had this pair of nippy wingers started the game.
Photos: Alfie Lee/Football Association of Singapore