M-League analysis: Can Singapore's LionsXII make history this week?

M-League analysis: Can Singapore's LionsXII make history this week?

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The Malaysian Super League is the premier professional football league in Malaysia. The former state of Malaysia, Singapore, now an independent country at the foot of the Malayan peninsular, participated in this tournament, before deciding to leave in 1994 in order to set up their own independent professional football league, now named the S-League.

In order to allow older generation fans to relive those glory days of the 1980s and ‘90s, as well as give the younger generation a chance to have a feel of the “Malaysian Cup” , where footballing legends like current Johor FC coach Fandi Ahmad once featurd, a player who once played for Dutch club FC Groningen and scored in the UEFA Cup against Internazionale of Italy, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) decided in 2012 to form the Singapore LionsXII (pronounced Lions Twelve), and rejoin the Malaysian Super League.

At the helm is fellow football legend and now manager V Sundramoorthy, who led the team to a second place finish in their first year back in the Malaysian football scene, as well as exiting at the semi final stage of the Malaysian Cup. (The Malaysian Cup is a post-season tournament that the top eight teams in the Malaysian Super League qualify for and compete in)

Expectations were not as high this year for the team after the public learned that experienced internationals had left due to the age restrictions imposed by the league. There was a significant loss of goals in the team with Nigerian-born striker Agu Casmir and forward Sufian Anuar returning to the S-League. Sundramoorthy’s creative spark also suffered a blow when dead-ball specialist Shaiful Esah and playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman left for the S-League as well.

The squad’s overall age had inevitably decreased, with younger players from the LionsXII’s feeder club, the Courts Young Lions (who compete in the S-League but only contains local under-21 players), drafted in to fill these places. This new LionsXII squad was to be groomed for the South East Asia Games at the end of this year. Fortunately for the LionsXII, they managed to keep hold of their star players in skipper Shahril Ishak and centre-back Baihakki Khaizan, as both initially wanted to end their contracts early and move to Thai clubs in search of better wages. However, the loss of influential assistant coach Kadir Yahya was also seen as a major blow to their chances this season. This in turn increased the reliance and importance on skipper Ishak, defender Khaizan and tough-tackling midfielder Isa Halim to form the core and lead this new team forward.

Rival clubs continued to boost their ranks with experienced foreign imports, further raising the quality in the league. The major transfer to note was Johor Darul Takzim’s double acquisition of Spanish Euro 2008 winning striker Dani Guiza and Lazio winger Simone Del Nero. Pahang FA managed to sign former QPR defender Damion Stewart and T-Team brought two former Hull City team-mates in George Boateng and Caleb Folan. Hence, everything seemed to be against the team from Singapore making it far this year.

The LionsXII seemed to find the consistency of potential league champions, and as ever lady, or champion’s, luck shined on them over the course of the season. Credit must be due to coach Sundramoorthy for sticking to his beliefs over the strength of the team’s set-piece ability, and continued to focus on that aspect during training and in games. The mere stat that 16 out of the 28 goals scored so far have come as a result of a set-piece, even a goal was scored due to a throw-in, shows how much the LionsXII rely on dead-ball for goals and points. Skipper Ishak bore more of the set-piece delivery duties as a result of the loss of dead-ball specialist Esah, and has more than proved his worth, as seen in the aforementioned stat.

Reasons for encouragement

Further on, the emergence of a new generation of young players have also added quality and depth to the LionsXII squad and charge towards the Malaysian Super League title. The dominating and ever-consistent centre-back Safuwan Bahrudin, 21, has seen the team’s defence improve immensely from last season. Bahrudin’s superb understanding with his defensive partner Khaizan, as well as his knack for goals at the other end of the pitch, sometimes at vital times in a match, has seen his stock rise considerably.

He has many more years before he will hit his peak, and when he does, Bahrudin could be a mainstay in the Singapore national team for years to come. The next Aide Iskandar? He could be even better, considerably. Along with Bahrudin, goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud made his debut back in a crunch World Cup qualifier against causeway rivals Malaysia after both first and second choice goalkeepers got injured, and have never looked back. His commanding presence and ability to pluck crosses out of the air gives his defence an assurance second to none. Mahbud’s ability to kick long distances for his goal-kicks has aided in the team in their direct style of football, at times relieving the pressure on the defence and giving them a breather. He has even been seen going up to take the occasional direct free-kick.

New to the team has been right-back Faritz Hameed, who oddly wears the more forward-sounding number nine jersey. His composure betrays his youth, and his tackling ability is raw yet effective. What could be improved is his forays forward, and though he has a couple of assists to his name, Hameed’s crossing ability can be better. Being able to play on either flank are diminutive wingers Faris Ramli and Nazrul Nazari, with both having similar playing styles. Both prefer to run directly at their full-back and into channels.

Their crossing abilities are pretty decent as well, and though they could be more amongst the assists charts, they have helped coach Sundramoorthy in that he is now allowed to play with a wider system instead of being as narrow as last season. Forward Shafiq Ghani was also plucked from the Courts Young Lions, and has seen his influence grow as the season gone by. Vital winners and assists has proved invaluable in the team’s push for honours this season. Just a few days ago, Ghani further showcased his free-kick ability with a 30 plus yard effort that flew in off the post, which was a crucial equaliser against Perak that kept the points gap against their nearest rivals, Johor Darul Takzim. Ghani’s vision and passing ability is also hugely impressive for his young age, and if he continues to develop at this rate, he will no doubt be Singapore, and even the region’s premier forward in the near future. The next Fandi Ahmad? Not quite, but a bright future for him, indeed.

However the team has been blighted with many challenges as well. The issue of National Service (NS – compulsory conscription for young men at 18 years of age) has caused much disruption for the LionsXII team. Many players in NS are deprived of proper travel and rest during away games in Malaysia, up to the extent that one player, Shakir Hamzah, went absent without official leave (or AWOL) to play an away game. He was subsequently charged under military law and punished by the FAS. Furthermore, key centre-back Khaizan’s tendency to collect yellow cards during games has seen him suspended for games here and there, forcing coach Sundramoorthy to constantly have to reshuffle his back-line. The likes of Hamzah and midfield general Hariss Harun have had to fill in central defence in Khaizan’s absence, causing other areas of the field to be compromised as well. Yet, with all these problems, the LionsXII are a win away from claiming the league title.

Much has to be credited to the way coach Sundramoorthy has set his team up and especially how skipper Ishak has stepped up and led the team by example. His leadership and obvious footballing ability, as the team’s creative hub, has seen him become a major force in the Southeast Asian region. He may have scored less goals this season, but he has definitely been involved in much more. Dropping deep and gaining fouls in order to allow his team to regroup has been a key feature in his play this season, showing how much he is willing to work for the team. An unsung hero in the team is forward Fazrul Nawaz. He returned from an injury-blighted first season to emerge as a key player for his team. His work rate and ever-enthusiastic running down the channels allowed his team to drive forward even when they were pegged back during tough away games. Add on to that, Nawaz does his traditional striker role well as well, getting amongst the goals and showing great hunger.

What is obvious to most football fans is the team’s direct style of football and focus on set-pieces to win games. However, most do not see how coach Sundramoorthy has had to reshape his team after the loss of key members of the squad, how he had to pass on more responsibility to his skipper and the core players of his team in order to better ease the new younger players in and yet push for the title. If the team does seal the title, hopefully on home soil midweek, much will have to do with Sundramoorthy’s tactical nuance and the leadership roles his main players had taken, as well as the emergence of this new batch of young, hungry players. A cup final berth may not be too far off too as well, even if they may be the team to beat come the post-season tournament.

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