MALAYSIA SUPER LEAGUE
Johor Darul Takzim 1
The LionsXII entered their Malaysia Super League (MSL) match against league-topping Johor Darul Takzim on the back of a good run, with four wins in their last five matches.
They were also coming off a morale-boosting 4-2 win over the previous league leaders Pahang at the Jalan Besar Stadium last Saturday.
But they were powerless to stop the JDT express from chugging on in front of a partisan 20,100 crowd at the Larkin Stadium yesterday, as the defending MSL champions made it 10 wins in 10 home matches with a 1-0 victory.
Argentinian striker Luciano Figueroa, who has five goals in his last four matches, put the LionsXII to the sword with a brilliantly-taken goal in the second half.
Receiving a low cross from S. Kunalan in the 55th minute, the 1.8m-tall forward left Madhu Mohana for dead with a deft turn, before firing into the bottom-right corner.
Yet, while they trudged back across the Causeway empty-handed again, the team can take pride from a disciplined performance that, for long passages of the game, troubled their big-spending rivals, who also boast the best defensive record in the league with just 11 goals conceded in 19 matches.
Said coach Fandi Ahmad: "I can't fault my boys, they fought very hard. I thought we did quite well even though we did not have many chances. We did what we came to do, but in the end they were superior."
In the reverse fixture at Jalan Besar, they had to rely on a superb effort from goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud to eke out a 0-0 draw.
But yesterday, they comfortably held the home team at bay for much of the game, as Fandi's tactics nearly paid off.
His game plan was clear from the start.
Going all out against JDT, whose last home defeat was in 2012, would have been brave - admirable, even - but ultimately suicidal.
Instead, the LionsXII opted to sit back, and looked to hit them on the counter or from set pieces, especially Madhu's long throws.
It worked for the first half, which left JDT coach Mario Gomez a frustrated figure on the touchline.
The visitors even came close to scoring in the 32nd minute, when winger Nazrul Nazari beat his marker and sent in a dangerous cross from the right .
Unfortunately, his team-mates could not match his enterprise and failed to connect with the cross.
After going a goal down, Fandi brought on pacy striker Sahil Suhaimi after 64 minutes, in a bid to rescue a point.
And the substitute nearly repaid his coach's faith in him nine minutes later with a rasping drive from 30 metres out, which flew just over the bar.
Safuwan Baharudin also had a late chance to level the scores when he rose highest to meet a Hafiz Abu Sujad cross, but he glanced the ball wide.
Eventually a goal proved too far, and the LionsXII fell to their sixth defeat in 10 away games. They remain in seventh place with 29 points, 14 points behind JDT.
Next up for the LionsXII is a home tie against Selangor on Saturday, and Fandi said: "We have to bounce back, and we want to win our last two home games. Fourth place is still possible."