Football: New defence mechanism for LionsXII ahead of September's Malaysia Cup

LionsXII's Izzdin Shafiq has made the midfield enforcer position his own this year, earning praise from coach Fandi Ahmad.
LionsXII's Izzdin Shafiq has made the midfield enforcer position his own this year, earning praise from coach Fandi Ahmad.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

LionsXII focus on strategies to curtail habit of conceding away goals before Malaysia Cup

It has been a roller-coaster of a Malaysia Super League (MSL) season for the LionsXII. They are imperious at home, yet flounder badly on their travels.

Only three teams in the league - leaders Johor Darul Takzim (JDT), second-placed Pahang and the LionsXII - can still boast an unbeaten home record with one remaining round of matches.

Yet the Singapore outfit lie seventh among the 12 teams, 16 points behind JDT and out of contention for a top-four finish. They end their campaign tonight with a home tie against relegated Sime Darby FC.

The most clear-cut reason for their position in the lower half of the table is their mediocre away form. Their trips across the Causeway this campaign have been a humbling experience, as they leaked 22 goals in 11 games, leading to just one win, three draws and seven defeats.

Questionable refereeing and intimidating home crowds aside, they have started slowly, conceding first in nine out of those 11 away fixtures.

Worryingly for head coach Fandi Ahmad ahead of next month's Malaysia Cup, the LionsXII also looked disjointed at defending set pieces and diagonal balls during their travels.

Left-back Hafiz Sujad said: "It is as if we sometimes forget to defend when we were in Malaysia.

"(All of us) know that this is not acceptable. We are working hard in training to get things right for the Malaysia Cup."

Having failed to finish in the top four to earn a Cup seeding, they will hope that for the opening group stage, they can avoid drawing JDT or Pahang, the two leading MSL title contenders who have been head and shoulders above the rest of the league.

Fandi has called on his players to step up, as he aims to avoid a repeat of last year's Cup campaign in which they crashed out at the opening stage.

Forward Faris Ramli is the team's top scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, but more is needed from main strikers Khairul Amri and Khairul Nizam, who have notched 13 strikes between them.

Nor has defender-turned-midfielder Safuwan Baharudin hit top gear since returning from a loan spell at A-League side Melbourne City. Fandi also wants more from playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman, who has endured a stop-start campaign since returning from a serious knee injury.

He said: "Shahdan, we all know, is a quality player but he has not been consistent. I understand he's coming back from injury but now, I want him to be more aggressive, take more shots, lead this team."

While the team have struggled defensively in away games, Fandi is backing them to come good. He praised his "Consistent Four" for putting in their best efforts week in, week out and believes they can spring a pleasant surprise by spearheading the LionsXII into the later stages of the Malaysia Cup.

The quartet - Madhu Mohana, Nazrul Nazari, Hafiz and Izzdin Shafiq - are scaling new heights in their careers, after progressing from bench-warmers to top prospects for the national team.

Madhu, Nazrul and Hafiz form three-quarters of Fandi's first- choice backline. Izzdin, meanwhile, has made the midfield protector spot his own for both club and country - a far cry from barely two years ago, when he was struggling to get playing time at S-League side Home United.

Said Fandi: "It's hard to stay focused and consistent when you travel so much in this competition, but these four guys have never let me down.

"They follow my instructions, they always play their hearts out and, most importantly, they are not afraid, which is a character trait the entire squad need to build."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'NEW DEFENCE MECHANISM'. Print Edition | Subscribe