Up in the air: Zul trapping the ball with both feet in mid-air.
Locking down a first-team spot this season, the 22-year-old is unfazed ahead of the clash against Johor Darul Ta’zim
By Kenneth Tan
JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia, 28 January 2014: One swipe of his outside-foot saw him spilt the whole KL DRB-Hicom defence to find Sufian Anuar, who in turn set up Gabriel Quak for an easy tap-in.
Another precisely-delivered deadball with his instep left the Selangor backline all out at sea, as it picked out Shakir Hamzah who headed home emphatically at the far post.
Slowly but surely, Zulfahmi Arifin is beginning to make his mark on this new-look LionsXII team.
Starting in all three games and missing just eight minutes of action to date this season, he can now be described as a ‘first-team regular’. It is something which is all new to the man himself though.
“This is the first year that I’m starting every game,” he shared with the official LionsXII website before the team’s training session on Monday evening. “Even at (Courts) Young Lions, I wasn’t that much a regular starter.”
And he is grateful to new gaffer Fandi Ahmad’s vote of confidence thus far.
“Coach Fandi really trusts me. He’s always pushing me on in training and telling me that ‘I’ve got the talent, to not waste it. That really makes a difference (to my performances) so far.”
It is no mean feat having to step into former vice-captain Hariss Harun’s shoes in the middle of the park, thus Zulfahmi is glad to have captain Isa Halim in close support.
“Isa has really good leadership qualities,” he remarked. “He really knows when to cover and support me during matches; that’s really important and it keeps me motivated.”
It has been a gruelling week for the LionsXII, having played three games in eight days. Thus, Zulfahmi hopes that the euphoria from that stunning last-gasp win against Selangor FA can psyche the team up for their next challenge.
“The tempo of the game (against Selangor) was really fast,” shared the 22-year-old. “It’s not easy and everyone felt tired after that.
Halfway through after Shahfiq (Ghani) played the ball in, I had a strong feeling (that we will score). Everyone celebrated after that and it was really great that we won that game.”
Although the two goals that day came via set-pieces, the midfield playmaker is keen to banish the notion that the LionsXII can only score through set-pieces.
“Set pieces are very important for us, and coach Fandi always tells me to emphasis on my kicks,” he revealed.
“However, he does tell us not to neglect on open play too. You can see that we are trying to play the ball on the ground as well in the last few games. It’s not easy, but I think people can see that we’re trying to play this new style of attacking football.”
The fixtures list has not been kind for the LionsXII. The team left for Larkin shortly after the training session to prepare for Tuesday night’s clash against Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) – a fourth game in 11 days for the Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions.
A scroll through the JDT’s team list will show you the who’s who in Malaysian football – captain Aidil Zafuan, playmaker Safiq Rahim, former national U23 captain Irfan Fazail, plus lethal forwards in Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and Safee Sali.
Their star-studded cast extends to their list of foreign imports, with Pablo Aimar and Luciano Figueroa adding plenty of European experience to the side.
Set to face off against Safiq and Shakir Shaari in one of the biggest tests of his career thus far, Zulfahmi remains unfazed of the challenge.
“To me, every game in the MSL is the same,” said the man who missed both encounters against JDT last season.
“We’ve played against Pahang and Selangor; both teams have very good central midfielders. Johor will have the very experienced Malaysia national team captain in Safiq, but football is a team game: there is Isa beside me, thus it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Of course, there is also the small matter of taking on former teammates Baihakki Khaizan and Hariss, but Zulfahmi is keen to put friendship aside for at least that 90 minutes.
“I know both of them very well,” he said. “I won’t be surprised if Hariss starts. We usually play against each other only in training, but what to do? We need to get the job done.”
It will be an arduous task, but according to Zulfahmi – the LionsXII will go for the jugular despite being the underdogs.
“JDT is a very strong side,” he admitted. “But coach Fandi has so much faith in us; he always tells us that we’re technically very good and we just need to be more confident of ourselves.
I believe if we stick to our plan, we can beat them.”
The much-awaited game against JDT will kick off at 8.45pm on Tuesday, January 28th and fans can catch the game ‘LIVE’ via Starhub 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!