KUALA LUMPUR - The LionsXII pulled of a historic win on Saturday night as they became the first non-Malaysian team to win the 26-year-old Malaysia FA Cup.
The Singapore outfit's victory came as a result of the grit and togetherness that coach Fandi Ahmad has helped to forge in his 24-man squad. While the likes of goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud and striker Khairul Amri were expected to star for the side, the FA Cup competition has also been a platform for five other players to make a name for themselves.
The Straits Times takes a look at the quintet who stood out in the Cup-winning campaign for the LionsXII.
1. Madhu Mohana
Into his fourth season with the LionsXII, the Malaysian FA Cup is his second trophy in his four years with the developmental side. Often used as a right-back during his time with the LionsXII, Madhu has enjoyed a stellar season thus far at the heart of the defence. With his vocal leadership at the back, the LionsXII achieved four straight clean sheets in the lead-up to the semi-final, this despite having to cope with multiple defensive partners. Afiq Yunos, Wahyudi Wahid and ultimately, Zulfahmi Arifin have all slotted in beside Madhu at various points of the season owing to injuries and form.
Madhu's rock-solid defending gave Fandi Ahmad's side the confidence to get at teams, and Madhu also popped up with a goal himself - in the 4-0 win over KL SPA Putrajaya in the second round. In a competition where clubs insist on foreign forwards who often bully their way onto the score sheet, Madhu has become the tower in the LionsXII's rear-guard.
2. Izzdin Shafiq
The most consistent player so far for the LionsXII this season, he has been a revelation in midfield. Izzdin was also part of the 2013 Malaysian Super League-winning side but had then been a bit-part player owing to his National Service commitments. It also didn't help that the player had been deemed too heavy for his own good. But since losing 8kg and earning a move back to the LionsXII at the start of the year following a good year with Home United in the S-League, Izzdin has mesmerised audiences with his displays.
Prior to the final, observers felt that the midfield would be a key battle in the match as Izzdin would go head to head with one of Malaysia's best midfielders, Badhri Radzi. Not only did Izzdin overpower Badhri in the middle of the park, the 24-year-old provided an assist worthy of winning any football final. Glancing at Faris Ramli, Izzdin played a defence-splitting pass with his weaker left foot for Faris to run onto and finish for the LionsXII's first goal. Izzdin's form has been so impressive that he has been keeping captain Isa Halim, who has over 50 caps for the national team, out of the side. Having conquered the Malaysian FA Cup, Izzdin's next quest is to earn his first national team call-up.
3. Sahil Suhaimi
The two-goal hero in the final, Sahil Suhaimi probably woke up thinking he was dreaming on Sunday morning. The joint-top local goal scorer in the S-League last season, Sahil was tipped to take the MSL by storm this season, but Fandi has used the 22-year-old forward sparingly. A player with an abundance of energy, Sahil has the ability to take on opposition defenders, something he did to devastating effect in the final with his first goal. With his brace in the final, he took his tally to five goals in all competitions. A testament to the forward's brilliance was shown when Fandi said after the match that he had sent Sahil on knowing that the young starlet would conjure up something special. Having put in a match-winning performance in the final, Sahil will now hope to give Singaporeans another tournament victory to shout about - at the upcoming SEA Games on home ground.
4. Nazrul Nazari
Look up Nazrul Nazari on the Internet and you would see the 24-year-old being referred to as a right-winger. The speedster has been deployed in a right-back role this season due to regular full-back Faritz Hameed's struggles with injury. In the final, Nazrul played his best match of the season. In the 26th minute, with the score at 1-0 in favour of the LionsXII, Kelantan's Wan Zack received the ball with the goal at his mercy. But somehow, Nazrul leapt his way in front of the shot and blocked it with his back. On the hour mark, Nazrul repeated his heroics again, throwing his 1.65m body at back-to-back shots from Erwin Carrillo.
Throughout the competition, Nazrul has been a hard tackler and read the game well as a defender despite being a natural attacker. His tendency to get forward has also reaped benefits for both him and the team. He scored a goal in the second leg of the quarter-final against Johor Darul Takzim, helping the LionsXII to a 4-0 win on aggregate. For what he lacks in height, Nazrul has more than made up for it with his fight.
5. Zulfahmi Arifin
An elegant player who perhaps had the best range of passing and was a steady central midfield player, Zulfahmi is another player who has had to be fielded in an unfamiliar role due to injuries in the team. To his credit, Zulfahmi has gone about with his centre-back stint with no fuss at all. Not known for crunching tackles in the middle of the park, Zulfahmi has become ferocious when needed, putting in a tough tackle or two while at the heart of the defence.
One quality that he has brought with him to the last line of defence is his calmness on the ball. On a few occasions in the final, Zulfahmi held on to the ball and brought it out of the back instead of choosing to clear. This gave his team-mates plenty of time to recoup and reorganise. When Afiq Yunos eventually returns to full fitness, Zulfahmi will be welcomed back in a midfield role. But if there is one thing that the 23-year old showed us, it is that the position does not make a footballer but the player himself who makes the most out of his position.