By Kenneth Tan
Johor Darul Ta’zim 2-2 LionsXII
(Luciano Figueroa 28’, Pablo Aimar 42’) (Khairul Amri 66’, Hafiz Sujad 69’)
JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia, 28 January 2014: Against all odds, the LionsXII came away with an impressive 2-all draw away against a star-studded Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) side on Tuesday night.
In front of an almost full-house Tan Sir Dato Haji Hassan Yunos Stadium, it appeared JDT was cruising to a routine home victory after first-half goals from their Argentinian duo Luciano Figueroa and Pablo Aimar. However, two goals in three second-half minutes saw the LionsXII salvaging an unlikely point.
There was one change for the LionsXII, with Faris Ramli replacing Gabriel Quak after his scintillating cameo against Selangor FA last Saturday. The 21-year-old found himself on the end of a good Zulfahmi pass just seconds into the game, but was unable to keep the ball in play.
The first 25 minutes saw little goalmouth action from both sides as the action revolved around the midfield battle between LionsXII’s duo of Isa Halim and Zulfahmi Arifin, and JDT’s Safiq Rahim and Shakir Shaari.
With the Southern Tigers adopting a patient build-up strategy, the LionsXII found it hard to get possession of the ball. Their only two opportunities came via counter-attacks with Zulfahmi lashing both efforts wide.
Eventually JDT’s patience paid off just before the half-hour mark. A superb move saw Shakir setting up Aimar, who in turn spilt the whole LionsXII defence open with an exquisite pass using the outside of his foot. Figueroa was the lucky beneficiary of the pass, selling LionsXII custodian Izwan Mahbud a dummy before duly slotting home inside Izwan near post.
To make things worse for the LionsXII, left back Shakir Hamzah limped off with an injury on 31 minutes, with Nazrul Nazari coming on as his replacement.
They had a chance to hit back immediately, but Amri could only fire over from a tight angle after Zulfahmi’s through ball.
Over at the other end, former LionsXII centre-back Baihakki Khaizan got his head to a floated corner from Aimar, but was denied by a superb flying save from Izwan.
However, the LionsXII custodian could do little to prevent what was to come three minutes before the break.
After Afiq Yunos brought down Amri Yahyah outside the box, up-stepped Aimar who bent a superb 25-yard effort over the wall and past the despairing reach of the 23-year-old.
With captain Isa sitting on a yellow, coach Fandi elected to bring on Madhu Mohana while pushing vice-captain Safuwan Baharudin into centre midfield.
The reshuffled team did well to contain the threat of the fearsome JDT attack, and Aimar came off on 65 minutes to be replaced by Norshahrul Idlan Talaha. Meanwhile, Aqhari Abdullah came on for Sufian Anuar for the LionsXII’s final change of the night, with Safuwan being pushed further up front to play as a forward.
With the main attacking threat of JDT gone, it handed the initiative for the Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions to find a game back into the game.
First up was Amri, who rose above three JDT defenders to flick home a superb header past Norazlan Razali from Madhu’s long throw.
Barely three minutes later, the comeback was completed. Nazrul pulled back Amri’s lofted cross across goal for Safuwan whose shot was parried by Norazlan, and it was Hafiz who was at the right place at the right time to smash home the rebound.
It was a goal which sent the pocketful of the travelling fans wild, and it was the LionsXII who looked more likely to get the winner in the closing stages.
With nerves starting to show in the JDT backline, coach Fandi urged the team to push up at every possible opportunity.
Safuwan was just about foiled by Norazlan on a one-on-one on 85 minutes after a superb breakaway move involving Nazrul and Faritz Hameed from the right. Amri then fired over after Baihakki slipped from a Faritz diagonal ball.
There was even one last opportunity six minutes into injury time, but Amri’s freekick was unable to beat the wall after Faris was brought down at the edge of the box.
Eventually both teams had to share the spoils after a topsy-turvy game.
Fandi: We saw real men tonight
At the post-match press conference, coach Fandi lauded the character of his boys that saw them claim a creditable result.
“I’m quite shocked that we went 2-nil down,” he shared.
“I knew the boys were a bit jittery in front of a big crowd and we lost a lot of battles in midfield. But I felt the discipline and character was there in the second half; the counter-attacking football was superb, thus we managed to come back.
We could have gotten all three points but that’s football. We’re happy to get one under such difficult circumstances.”
The 51-year-old revealed he showed motivational videos to raise his side’s spirit ahead of this big game, something which eventually worked.
“It’s about time we change from boys to men,” he remarked.
“And we saw real men tonight. After going down, we never gave up – we need to uphold that character. I have to salute them because they fought all the way till the end.”
And he was glad to see the strategy of pushing vice-captain Safuwan into an attacking role came out trumps again.
“We don’t to risk Isa getting a red card so we took him out,” he reasoned.
“That’s when I pushed Safuwan forward. He injected life and created a lot of difficulties for the JDT defenders.”
Meanwhile former LionsXII stalwart Baihakki was visibly disappointed after the game, but was gracious in giving credit to his former side’s recovery abilities.
“Of course I’ve to give it to them,” said the 29-year-old.
“I know this team very well since I’ve played with them; their never-say-die attitude is always there. I knew at some point (in the game), some things will start coming at us.
I can sense that and it was just a slip of concentration, then things started happening. That’s football; we have to take it from here and look forward to the next game.”
The LionsXII’s next assignment will see them take on Pahang FA in the second round of the Malaysia FA Cup and the tie will be played on Saturday, February 1st at 7.45pm.
Do come on down to support the boys in their quest to reach the last eight of the competition!