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All eyes on LionsXII captain Shahril Ishak in Negeri Sembilan match

Top against bottom; title chasers against relegation battlers.

On paper, the LionsXII should have it easy tonight in Paroi, against a Negeri Sembilan propping up the Malaysian Super League and yet to register their first win of the season.

Victory for V. Sundramoorthy’s side would restore their four-point lead ahead of Johor Darul Takzim.

But they will have to do it with a side much-changed from the one that defeated Perak 2-1 last Saturday.

Baihakki Khaizan (suspended), Shakir Hamzah (groin strain) and Faris Ramli (national service commitments) will all miss out, with Zulfahmi Arifin, Hafiz Sujad and Safirul Sulaiman poised to start.

For the incoming trio, it is a chance to show that they belong at this level.

“I have to grab this opportunity,” said Zulfahmi, 21, who will make his third LionsXII start. “It’s a chance for me to make that starting XI slot my own.”

But as highly rated as the cultured midfielder is, all eyes will again be on captain Shahril Ishak.

Having scored the team’s last three goals, the 29-year-old is hitting a purple patch at the right time. But, true to his nature, he has been quick to play down his contributions.

It is over a week since he was crowned the Asean Football Federation’s Player of the Year for 2012, yet the national captain is still not fully convinced that he deserves the accolade.

At least, not on his own.

“It’s not just me,” he stressed. “My LionsXII and national team team-mates, coaches and staff – they are the ones who made this happen.”

Maybe so. But even the most ardent detractors would be hard pressed to deny that he was at the top of his game last year.

As LionsXII skipper, he scored 14 goals in 33 appearances in the team’s maiden campaign to help them finish second in the MSL and reach the semi-finals of the Malaysia Cup.

But it was a starring role at the year-ending AFF Suzuki Cup that some believe secured the Lions’ No.17 the Asean Player of the Year gong. Shahril scored four goals to lead the Republic to a record fourth Cup triumph and was duly named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

“Either him or Thailand’s Teerasil Dangda would have been a good choice,” Philippine striker Phil Younghusband said.

“But Shahril really stepped up in the Suzuki Cup, so I think he deserves to be Player of the Year.”

Former Thai international Surachai Jaturapattarapong agreed.

As assistant coach at Home United from 2006 to 2009, the 43-year-old saw first-hand the evolution of Shahril, from a highly rated – if sometimes erratic – youngster to regional star.

“What set him apart from others were his vision, awareness and technique,” said Surachai, who is currently in charge of Thai Premier League side Chainat.

“Then, in 2009, he got married and that stabilised his life. He became more focused on his football, to make a good living and support his family.”

But that was not the only change the player went through during his four-year spell with the Protectors. Given a licence to roam by coach Lee Lim Saeng, he thrived in 2010, scoring 17 league goals before Indonesian outfit Persib Bandung came calling.

According to Lionel Lewis, that season helped mould his former Home and Lions team-mate into a complete attacking package.

“He was always capable of producing a special pass,” recalled the 30-year-old who last year hung up his goalkeeping gloves. “Coach Lee showed how best to use him and he was able to add goal-scoring to his repertoire.”

And the difference has been telling – especially last year, with Shahril grabbing five international goals in 14 outings with the Lions. In contrast, his 16 appearances in 2010 and 2011 failed to produce a single strike.

Joining the band of Shahril admirers is B. Sathianathan, coach of MSL side ATM FA.

“He has the ability to read the game and time his runs perfectly. That’s not something in the coaching manual; that’s not something you can teach,” he said.

fabiusc@sph.com.sg

Negeri Sembilan v LionsXII Live, StarHub Ch201, 8.30pm