By Kenneth Tan
LionsXII 2-1 ATM FA
(Khairul Amri 16’, Zulfahmi Arifin 21’) (Rezal Zambery 76’)
SINGAPORE, 24 May 2014: It was a pleasant night of football at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday night as the LionsXII snapped their three-game losing streak in the Malaysian Super League.
Quick-fire first-half goals from Khairul Amri and Zulfahmi Arifin proved to be enough to sink the visiting Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM) FA in front of 5,188 fans despite Rezal Zambery’s late goal for the visitors.
There were three changes made by LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad; with Madhu Mohana and Afiq Yunos out through suspension, and Baihakki Khaizan making his first home appearance since re-joining the side.
Meanwhile Raihan Rahman returned from suspension to pair up with Zulfahmi in midfield and Shahfiq Ghani was restored just behind Amri.
The changes had the desired effect on the defending champions. Baihakki kept out the dangerous Fabrice Noel in attack; Raihan got stuck in for a couple of 50-50s while Shahfiq was at the heart of most of the attacking moves.
The latter’s good ball was spurned by Gabriel Quak in front of goal on 14 minutes, but there was no such letting up for the opposition two minutes later.
Shahfiq’s brilliant in-swinging corner picked out Amri and the hotshot’s thumping header proved too powerful for ATM keeper Syed Adney.
Just like they did on Tuesday night, the LionsXII quickly doubled their lead.
A superb counter-attacking move saw Amri holding off his marker before releasing Zulfahmi down the right. The latter skipped past one, feinted past another on his way into the box, before powering home a shot into the top left corner.
Buoyed by the handy advantage, Fandi’s boys seized control of the game and forced Adney into a series of saves.
The English-born custodian was forced to parry shots from Amri, Zulfahmi and Shahfiq, while Faris Ramli and Gabriel also went close on a couple of occasions.
ATM coach B Sathianathan made a couple of substitutions on the hour mark; bringing on Juan Arostegui and Safwan Hashim for Bruno Martelotto and Yusaini Hafiz.
However, all they could muster in the first half was a close-range shot by Arotesgui which was denied by Izwan’s quick reflexes.
The LionsXII maintained the two-goal lead till half time and could have made it three just after the break.
Amri held off two markers from a long ball to set up Faris, but the latter’s shot was deflected agonisingly onto the post.
The tempo of the game soon went down as coach Fandi brought on Hafiz Sujad and Aqhari Abdullah for the jaded duo of Safuwan and Zulfahmi respectively.
ATM gradually settled into the game and pulled one back 14 minutes before the end.
Captain Zambery exchanged passes with Riduwan Maon before firing a sizzling 20-yard shot past a stranded Izwan Mahbud in the LionsXII goal.
However unlike the last game, the LionsXII held on towards the very end as the defence stood strong to repel any danger.
There was still one last chance for Faris as his close-range shot was denied by Adney, but that mattered little as the LionsXII clinched a much-needed win.
Fandi: What a relief!
At the post-match press conference, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad was in a slightly more jovial mood.
“What a relief!” he exclaimed.
“It (The winless streak) has been a burden for them for the past two and a half weeks. We had an entertaining first half, Raihan and Zulfahmi played well in midfield and we should have been up by three to four goals.”
However he still wants his side to improve on closing out the game.
“That’s our problem,” he said.
“We need to play for 90 minutes, instead of just 45. We need to learn how to kill out the game and when to keep the ball. We kept pumping long balls and that’s how they (ATM) got the goal. If it was a different team, it could have been a draw.”
Meanwhile opposite counterpart B Sathianathan lamented his side’s slow start to the game.
“We were all over the shop in the first half,” he said.
“We had problems with Affize (Mamat) before the game and we had to reshuffle whatever plans we had. We came back well and kept going in the second half; the players gave their best.”
Despite defeat, the former Malaysian international was gracious in praising the LionsXII’s display.
“They played very well in the first half,” he analyzed.
“They kept the ball better, the movement is better and their players were very well. Our midfielders dropped too deep and they created a lot of space (because of that). Once they took the lead, the game was easy to control for them.”
The LionsXII stays on eighth position after this victory, with 24 points from 17 games.
There will be a two-week break before they return to MSL action. Their next league assignment will see them go away to Kota Bahru to take on Kelantan FA and the game will be played on Tuesday, June 10th.
Fans can catch the game ‘LIVE’ via StarHub’s Super Sports Arena on Channel 201 from 8.30pm onwards.
Do check back on the LionsXII’s website and Facebook page for the latest updates regarding the game. Go LionsXII go!