By Kenneth Tan
LionsXII 2-3 Johor Darul Ta’zim
(Faris Ramli 38’, Zulfahmi Arifin 41’) (Pereyra Diaz 43’, 75’, Luciano Figueroa 54’)
SINGAPORE, 20 May 2014: Despite a spirited display, the LionsXII was unable to collect the three points on Tuesday night as they went down to a 3-2 defeat against fierce rivals Johor Darul Takzim at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Two quick-fire goals late in the first half sent the LionsXII fans into ecstasy. However, the advantage was not sustained.
A Pereyra Diaz goal right before half time gave the visitors some hope, before Luciano Figueroa equalized from the spot nine minutes after the break. Diaz then scored his second 15 minutes from time and completed the comeback for the away side.
There were a couple of enforced changes for the LionsXII, with Madhu Mohana and Firdaus Kasman coming in for Baihakki Khaizan and Raihan Rahman, who were unavailable for the game.
Along with captain Safuwan Baharudin, Kasman did well to combat the threat of former teammate Hariss Harun in the middle of the park.
It was an open game in the first thirty minutes with both sides having decent chances to break the deadlock.
Gabriel Quakcreated a couple of opportunities for Safuwan Baharudin and Khairul Amri, but the duo was unable to get their efforts on target.
Meanwhile for JDT, Safee Sali was put through on goal twice but was first denied by a superb Shakir Hamzah tackle and a point-blank save from Izwan Mahbud respectively.
Luciano Figueroa then headed into the arms of Izwan before Amri Yahyah saw his close-range shot well blocked by Faritz Hameed.
Holding off that pressure from JDT, the LionsXII eventually took the lead on 38 minutes. Faris Ramli controlled a Shakir Hamzah cross superbly inside the box before curling home a brilliant effort from a tight angle.
Things got even better three minutes later when Quak was brought down just outside the box. Set-piece specialist Zulfahmi Arifin stepped up to curl a brilliant effort beyond the reach of JDT keeper Izham Tarmizi.
However, the LionsXII fans’ celebrations were cut short when JDT managed to pull one back.
A clever Figueroa pass sent Diaz through and the latter managed to lift the ball just above Izwan and into the LionsXII net.
That goal lifted the visitors’ spirits going into the half-time break and they came out fighting in the second half.
Mahali Jasuli came on for the ineffectual Safee, with Diaz being pushed upfront to support Figueroa. That proved to be the key difference between the two sides.
They soon levelled matters as Afiq Yunos was harshly adjudged to have handled the ball inside the ball. Figueroa’s resulting penalty was parried by Izwan, but the Argentinian managed to follow up and finish past the LionsXIIcustodian.
Letting slip a two-goal lead, the LionsXII tried to rally themselves as they piled on the pressure in search of a winner but all they could muster were Safuwan’s brilliant attempt which was deflected wide, and a powerful Kasman shot which went straight to Izham.
Sufian Anuar and Hafiz Sujad were promptly introduced into the fray, but the duo tried their best to add to the LionsXII’s attacking impetus.
But JDT started to produce a series of chances soon after. A superb Figueroa ball spilt open the whole LionsXII backline, with Diaz latching on and slotting a neat finish past the onrushing Izwan.
With 15 minutes left to salvage a point, but the JDT defence stood strong to repel the relentless LionsXII attacks that followed. Afiq could have won the home team a vital point but he failed to connect onto Hafiz’s flighted ball.
The LionsXII eventually slumped to their third consecutive defeat as the title slipped further out of their grasp.
Fandi: We did well
At the post-match press conference, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad cut an obvious desolate figure.
“I thought we did well,” he reflected.
“We were a bit jittery at the start but we came back strongly. We took our chances well, but after our second goal, we lost a bit of focus which resulted in the opponents’ first goal.”
While admitting that his team lost to a quality side, his disappointment on the suspect penalty decision which led to JDT’s equalizer was plain to see.
“You all saw it, I won’t say anything,” he said, refusing to go into detail
Cutting out the disappointment that came with the loss, the former national forward was happy with the way his side scored the goals and applauded the fans for their unwavering support.
“The quality (of the goals) was superb,” he said.
“It’s smart play by Faris (for the first); he wanted to pass (initially) but saw the keeper coming out so he curled it in. There were some good moments for us and you can see we are improving in terms of individual ability.
It’s important for us that the fans stayed behind us. They understand that we have a very young team and we never give up.”
Meanwhile his opposite counterpart Bojan Hodak was pleased with the result which kept his side in the thick of things for the title race.
“This game was crucial for us,” he shared.
“Now we’re much closer to Selangor. It’s important for my players to show character. We scored a very important goal before half time and our pace led to our third goal. The only thing we need to fix is the defending.”
He also lauded the efforts of Hariss who performed well against his former side.
“I think he was really good,” he assessed.
“Normally people don’t respect players like this in the centre who do the dirty job, but coaches like this kind of players.”
The LionsXII’s next MSL match sees them take on ATM FA at Jalan Besar Stadium this Saturday, May 24th at 7.45pm.
Do continue to come down and support the boys as they aim to finish in the top three this season!