|By Khalis Rifhan
The LionsXII kept to their promise to play entertaining football and dominated the first leg of their Malaysia Cup tie against ATM FA throughout, but they were guilty of wasting their chances and a defensive lapse saw ATM take the lead.
Trailing by a goal and with fifteen minutes left on the clock, coach V. Sundramoorthy made several switches and it paid dividends soon after, as the host leveled the scores nine minutes from time, although the away goal they conceded could yet return to haunt them.
With forward Khairul Amri nursing an injury, LionsXII started with Agu Casmir as a lone striker, supported by the lively Shahdan Sulaiman down the middle of the field.
Roared on by the sell-out home crowd, the LionsXII started decently, with captain Shahril Ishak and Safirul Sulaiman making full use of the flank on the right and left respectively.
There were several chances for the home side in the opening minutes but they failed to trouble The Gladiators' [ATM’s nickname] custodian Farizal Harun.
Shahdan sents a wicked cross into the middle of the box but Agu was unable to connect with his head, much to the relief of the visitors.
Agu then cleverly sprung the offside trap to get to the end of Safirul’s ball, but the naturalized Singaporean's low cross was just behind skipper Shahril as he arrived in the six-yard box.
The home side were seeing the lion's share of possession, with the visitors content to sit back and hit on the counter-attack.
The much-vaunted attacking trio of captain Hairuddin Omar, Marlon James and Argentinian Bruno Martelotto were unable to keep up with the pace of the game and were left isolated and frustrated upfront.
Seven minutes before the break, Shahdan’s speculative effort nearly broke the deadlock as Farizal fumbled his 30-yard effort, but the goalkeeper recovered in time to ensure the match remained goalless at half-time.
However, ATM took the lead against the run of play ten minutes after the restart.
Sloppy defending by the usually composed Baihakki Khaizan saw him react late to a long ball from defence by Reuben Thayaparan, much to the delight of the lurking Marlon.
With only the goalkeeper to beat, the Saint Vincent and Grenadines international coolly slotted the ball beyond the helpless Izwan Mahbud to silence the home crowd.
Ten minutes from the end, Farizal Harun recklessly gave away a freekick as he brought Shahril to the ground.
From the ensuing delivery, centreback Safuwan Bahrudin out-jumped his markers to plant a firm header into the back of the net to bring the stadium to its feet.
Despite late pressure, the hosts failed to breach the away side's defence again and will travel to the Majlis Perbandaran Selayang Stadium in Selayang on October 11 for a must-win second leg.