The FourFourTwo Preview: Johor Darul Ta’zim vs LionsXII
The toughest away trip for the Singaporeans yet (haven’t we heard that before?)
- ATM FA 0-1 JDT (MSL)
- JDT 4-0 Sime Darby (MSL)
- Sarawak FA 0-2 JDT (MSL)
- JDT 3-1 Selangor FA (MSL)
- JDT 2-1 PDRM FA (MSL)
- LionsXII 4-2 Pahang FA (MSL)
- Terengganu FA 4-2 LionsXII (MSL)
- LionsXII 2-1 Felda United (MSL)
- LionsXII 2-1 Perak FA (MSL)
- LionsXII 3-0 Kelantan FA (MSL)
The LionsXII should be bubbling with confidence after arguably their best performance/result of the 2015 Malaysian Super League (MSL) season so far. Goals from Faris Ramli (two), Madhu Mohana and Safuwan Baharudin tore title challengers Pahang FA apart at the Jalan Besar Stadium last Saturday, although the Tok Gajah did find the net via Matias Conti and R. Surendran.
That was only the second time the Singaporeans had scored more than three goals in the league this season, following up the opening day 5-3 triumph against PDRM FA. It is also perhaps notable that the LionsXII have managed to recover from each of their five league defeats so far, bouncing back every time with either a draw or a win.
The three points helped them climb a spot to sixth in the 12-team table, level with three other teams (including third-placed Selangor FA) on 29 points. While it seems almost impossible to catch frontrunners Pahang FA and Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), who are on 39 and 40 points respectively, a top-three finish is certainly within their grasp with just four more matches to go.
First up is a stern away trip to Larkin on Wednesday night to take on defending champions JDT.
The Southern Tigers struggled to find consistency in the first half of the season as they picked up just four wins in their opening nine matches (drawing three and losing twice on the other five occasions). Championship-winning coach Bojan Hodak bit the bullet, with little-known Argentinian Mario Gomez soon named as his replacement.
The latter’s arrival coincided with a superb nine-match unbeaten run in the league as they collected a total of 25 points out of the 27 on offer. That relentless run of form allowed them to overhaul Pahang at the top four days ago, courtesy of the Elephant’s surprise collapse at Jalan Besar.
With an immaculate home record of nine wins in nine so far, compared to LionsXII’s tame away record of one win over the same amount of games, Gomez’s side should be confident of their chances of making it a perfect 10 this Wednesday.
However, the Singaporeans have managed to come away from Larkin with gutsy 2-2 draws over the last two seasons, so the result may not be a foregone conclusion just yet. All of that points to a rather intriguing 90 minutes ahead.
After such a delightful result the last time out, there should be little reason for LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad to tinker with his starting 11. If that’s the case, we should see Faritz Hameed retaining his right-back spot alongside defensive mates Madhu, Shakir Hamzah and Hafiz Sujad.
Zulfahmi Arifin will be hoping to keep his spot in the middle of the park alongside Izzdin Shafiq, although he faces fierce competition from the well-rested Shahdan Sulaiman.
On the wings will be the electric duo of Faris and Nazrul Nazari, with the former looking to add to his 10 goals in all competitions so far. With Khairul Amri still out with a niggling calf strain, half-brother Khairul Nizam is likely to line up as the lone forward with Safuwan in close support.
The Safuwan-Nizam combo will be pivotal in breaking down a resilient JDT rearguard, which has the best defensive record in the league, letting in just 11 goals in 18 games and keeping eight clean sheets along the way.
Lining up in front of Malaysia No.1 Farizal Marlias, former Nuremberg defender Marcos Antonio is forming a tidy central defensive partnership with Aidil Zafuan, who seems to have found a new lease of life under Gomez.
Meanwhile, captain Safiq Rahim will link up with either Gary Steven Robbat or former LionsXII man Hariss Harun in the middle of the park, with the former looking to add to his six-goal tally so far.
The biggest threat to LionsXII will come from their front duo of Amri Yahyah and Luciano Figueroa, who have accounted for 14 of their 29 goals so far. Figueroa has been influential since his return from injury, scoring five in the last four matches.
If things do not work out upfront, do expect Malaysian veteran Safee Sali to come on to change fortunes – just like he did by scoring the winning goal against ATM FA last Saturday.
Key Battle: Safiq Rahim vs Izzdin Shafiq
While the focus will be on the duel between Madhu and Figueroa, the real decider could well be in midfield where both sides’ on-field conductors Safiq and Izzdin are set to tussle.
Safiq has kept up his form from the MVP showing he produced at the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, showcasing his goalscoring abilities and vision to lay on decisive balls for his forwards.
On the other hand, Izzdin has gone from strength to strength since re-joining LionsXII from Home United at the start of the season – being the only player to start all 25 games in all competitions so far and impressing with his high work rate to track down opposing midfielders.
In the 0-0 stalemate at Jalan Besar back in April, Izzdin managed to keep Safiq quiet, which in turn meant the JDT forwards had to feed on scraps upfront. It will be interesting to see if the 24-year-old can do it all over again.
Last Five Meetings
- LionsXII 0-0 JDT (MSL, Apr '15)
- LionsXII 2-3 JDT (MSL, May '14)
- JDT 2-2 LionsXII (MSL, Jan '14)
- LionsXII 1-1 JDT (MSL, Jun '13)
- JDT 2-2 LionsXII (MSL, Feb '13)
In coach Fandi’s opposite dugout is the experienced Gomez, who had worked as Hector Cuper’s assistant at La Liga side Valencia and Serie A giants Inter Milan.
Hodak’s sacking back in mid-April created shockwaves around Malaysian football as the Croatian had inspired the Southern Tigers to the title just last season. Gomez was swiftly named as his replacement, with the Johor faithful largely unconvinced by the fact that his only prior experience in Asian football was a short stint at Hong Kong outfit South China.
However, the 58-year-old seems to have shut those critics up by masterminding their rise to the top of the table. Defender Junior Eldstal is in no doubt of the impact which the new coach has made, telling Fourthofficial.com that his work on the training ground has made the side a much more collective unit than before.
Facts and Figures
- Draws have been all the rage when it comes to these two teams. They have faced each other nine times in history, with six ending up in draws. On the other three occasions, JDT won twice and LionsXII once.
- The solitary win for LionsXII came in April 2012 when JDT were still known as Johor FC. Amri’s goal was enough to separate the two sides in a league clash at Pasir Gudang.
- Hariss scored against his current side while donning LionsXII colours in a 2-2 draw at Larkin in the 2013 season.
- JDT are the only team with a 100 per cent record at home, with nine wins in nine. Only LionsXII and Selangor run close, with seven wins and two draws each.
- LionsXII have the fourth-worst away record in the league, with one win and three draws in nine games. That's only marginally better than Sime Darby, ATM FA and Sarawak FA, who are all yet to win away from home.
FFT.com Editor Zee Ko: Fandi would be happy with a draw, but I'm backing the LionsXII to upset the odds with a late winner in a nervy encounter. 0-1.
FFT MY/SG Magazine Editor Lee Seng Foo: A draw, perhaps 1-1. I reckon both teams will be too tired from the hectic schedule to create any good goalscoring opportunity.
Amanda Cheok: LionsXII win 1-2. It's the tail end of the season, so I believe LionsXII will step up their game and shock the hosts.
Kenneth Tan: A win seems unlikely against an in-form JDT side, but certainly a draw is not out of the question. Tipping our boys to grab a 1-1 result and blow the title race wide open again!
The Straits Times’ Deepanraj Ganesan: LionsXII 0-0 JDT. Try as they did, JDT could not find a way past Izwan in their last encounter. Different venue, same result, same man of the match.
Yahoo Sports’ Teng Kiat: JDT will be pumped up to keep their grip on first place and that should be enough to see them edge our boys. 2-1.