SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE
Balestier Khalsa v Young Lions
Toa Payoh Stadium, tomorrow, 5.30pm
Fandi Ahmad and his Young Lions could have been in Jakarta this week preparing for the football competition of the Asian Games.
But, because the national Under-23 squad failed to convince the Singapore National Olympic Council of their ability to beat opponents who finished in the top six at the last Asiad, the Young Lions - who make up the core of the U-23 team - will instead line up against Balestier Khalsa in a Singapore Premier League (SPL) match at Toa Payoh Stadium tomorrow.
And they are determined to prove that they are not a bunch of no-hopers. In their last SPL game, the Young Lions stunned second-placed Tampines Rovers 2-1.
Tampines boasted several seasoned national players such as Khairul Amri, Mustafic Fahrudin, Yasir Hanapi and Madhu Mohana.
OTHER SPL FIXTURES
Brunei DPMM v Geylang International Bandar Seri Begawan, 8.15pm
Tampines Rovers v Hougang United Our Tampines Hub, 5.30pm
Home United v Albirex Niigata, Bishan, 5.30pm
Geylang v Home Bedok, 7.45pm
Warriors v Tampines Choa Chu Kang, 7.45pm
Hougang v Balestier Hougang, 7.45pm
Young Lions v DPMM Jalan Besar, 7.45pm
Said Young Lions midfielder Hami Syahin: "We want to prove we are not an easy team to beat any more. This is a new team, with new coaching staff and motivated players."
The 19-year-old was a member of the Young Lions squads that finished last in 2016 and last year.
Their four wins this term have already eclipsed the three they scraped together across those two disappointing campaigns.
Hami credits Fandi and his assistant coaches Nazri Nasir and Noh Alam Shah - the trio are former national captains - for inspiring the present squad and also sharpening their tactical and technical ability.
Fandi said he has seen vast improvement since he started training them on Jan 7.
"In the beginning, the players made a lot of mistakes, silly little fouls, things like that," said the 56-year-old.
"But they have worked very hard, and they are beginning to understand the system of play we want them to carry out on the pitch.
"They have also improved in terms of awareness, consistency, and don't have those lapses of concentration as often as before."
With the AFF Suzuki Cup taking place at the end of the year, there is also added motivation for the Young Lions players to impress Fandi, who will lead the Lions at the biennial Asean tournament.
Hami, Zharfan Rohaizad, Zulqarnaen Suzliman, Joshua Pereira, Jacob Mahler, and Fandi's two oldest sons Irfan and Ikhsan, were among the 24 players who were called up to the national team's training day last week, hoping to make the final cut for the prestigious tournament.
"It's added motivation for them to know they might get the chance to train and play at a higher level. And they did very well," said Fandi.
Said Hami: "Every training session and game is a chance for us to prove we can match the experienced national players."
Balestier coach Marko Kraljevic is not surprised the Young Lions made progress this season.
Pointing to defender Irfan and striker Ikhsan as key players for Fandi's side, Kraljevic said: "I can see the squad have improved and are continuing to improve.
"More or less, they are the best U-23 players in Singapore.
"When they train and play games together week in and week out for eight months, they will naturally get better."