Football: Sundram lauds LionsXII players, who are determined to clinch MSL title

His men are just 90 minutes away from Malaysian Super League glory.

But ask V. Sundramoorthy if he had envisioned being in this position when the season started in January and the LionsXII coach's response is simple.

"I would have said you were joking," the 47-year-old said.

He is not alone.

With 25 members of their 30-man squad aged 23 and below, the Singapore outfit were given a conservative target of finishing in the top five by the Football Association of Singapore.

Yet, here they are 20 matches later - one win away from delivering a first Malaysian league title to the Republic in 19 years.

With a four-point lead over closest rivals Selangor and Johor Darul Tazkim, victory tonight would seal the crown with one match - a tricky away trip to Kelantan - to spare.

All the LionsXII, who are on 40 points, need to do is defeat relegation-threatened Felda United at a sold-out Jalan Besar Stadium this evening.

For Sundram, success would go a long way in proving the team's doubters wrong.

"Nobody gave us a chance," the former Malaysia Cup star pointed out. "But game after game, the boys have grown in confidence and that is what brought us to this position."

Team manager Visakan Subramanian agreed.

"The start of the season was really tough, with the youngsters trying to find their feet," he said.

"But once the team got to grips with the competition, they embraced it and now they know that they just need another 90 minutes of focus to write themselves into the history books."

It is unlikely the players need any reminder of what is at stake.

Defender Shakir Hamzah, who at 20 has been one of the team's outstanding performers this term, likened this evening's fixture to a Cup final.

"We are not champions yet," warned the Singapore international, who will line up alongside Safuwan Baharudin in the heart of the defence, with the experienced Baihakki Khaizan suspended.

"But this is something we want to do for our fans and for our country. This is our backyard and we're not giving anyone the chance to come here and win."

Indeed, with a near-perfect home record of nine wins and one draw, there is much cause for optimism that the LionsXII will receive the MSL trophy - which arrives today - after the match.

For the likes of captain Shahril Ishak and Baihakki, both 29, it would end their decade-long wait for league success at the club level.

For Aqhari Abdullah, who turns 22 in a week, it could mean so much more.

As the son of former Malaysia Cup star Abdullah Noor, the midfielder has grown up in the shadow of his illustrious father.

"People expect a lot from me because my father achieved so much," he said.

"It puts quite a bit of pressure on me but I take it positively and he has been a huge influence on my career."

No surprise, then, that the team's dressing-room deejay - "we call him DJ Apek because he looks like an ah pek (Chinese for old man)," said Shakir - has already decided what he will do first if they lift the trophy tonight.

"My mum and sister will be at the stadium but my dad is coaching in Australia," Aqhari said.

"If we do win, he'll be the first person I call after the match."

fabiusc@sph.com.sg

LionsXII v Felda United

Live, StarHub Ch201 & HD Ch255, 7.30pm

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