Merciless Lions silence doubters

The Lions' Suzuki Cup campaign got off to a flying start after a 3-0 win over Malaysia. (Photo courtesy of FAS)The Lions' Suzuki Cup campaign got off to a flying start after a 3-0 win over Malaysia. (Photo courtesy of FAS …

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After the full time whistle at the Bukit Jalil Stadium on Sunday night, there were team hugs, clenched-fisted punches in the air and broad smiles in the Singapore camp.

Some of the Malaysian players collapsed to the ground, as if their team had already been knocked out of this year's AFF Suzuki Cup.

It may be only the Lions' first game of the competition, but it is fair to say that the 3-0 victory and the performance had been sufficient to silence a majority of the doubters.

Likewise, the Malaysians knew that they may only have just lost one game, but they will have their work cut out for them now to retain the AFF Suzuki Cup. The Malaysian media will highlight that two years ago Malaysia lost their opening game 5-1 to Indonesia on route to winning the competition — but surely they cannot get this lucky every time.

Tactical Masterstroke

On the night, there was only one rightful winner of the Causeway Clash.

Coach Raddy Avramovic had gotten the tactics spot-on in every aspect. The Lions dominated the Harimaus in every department — the midfield pairing of Hariss Harun and Mustafic Fahrudin were particularly effective in nullifying the Malaysia midfield engine.

When the starting line-up was announced, I was somewhat surprised that Aleksandar Duric only made the bench. Duric was the chief tormenter of the Malaysian defence when we trounced them 5-3 at the Jalan Besar Stadium for a World Cup qualifier some 18 months ago and I felt he would again lead the line here.

At the end of the day, Raddy vindicated himself yet again.

Khairul Amri was the lone striker for the night and the diminutive player put up a tireless performance, lasted the entire 90 minutes and ran the Malaysian backline ragged.

And when Duric was introduced with 20 minutes to go, he performed his role of a substitute with maximum efficiency. He held up the play well, performed some defensive duties for the team and even found the net with a header in the 75th minute. It is arguable that Duric may not have the legs to last 90 minutes nowadays and that a super-sub role may be best for him and the national team going forward.

LionsXII Connection

In many aspects, the LionsXII connection was very evident in Sunday night's performance.

Personnel-wise, there is no hiding from this connection. Amongst the starting eleven, a total of eight players were from the LionsXII. Irwan Shah, one of three substitutes on the night, was also a LionsXII player.

Tactically, it is just as easy to identify the similarities between the national team and the LionsXII.

Under coach V Sundramoorthy, set-pieces, organization and counter-attack were the cornerstone of LionsXII's tactical play.

These three tactical aspects were well-demonstrated by the national team on Sunday night.

Although the Malaysian custodian Khairul Fahmi's mistake played a part in our second goal, it was from an out-swinging freekick that started that particular passage of play. Throughout the night, Shahdan Sulaiman and Shaiful Esah were the key architects of all the dead ball situations, like they have been throughout the Malaysian domestic season for LionsXII.

In the second half, at 2-0 up, the Lions maintained discipline and continued to be very well-organised at the back to fend off periods of Malaysian pressure. The backline, well-marshalled by Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin, laid the foundation for the team to hold on to the lead and launch effective counter-attacks as the game wore on.

Duric's header that put Singapore in an unassailable 3-0 lead was a result one of those perfectly executed counter-attacks.

All in all, the familiarity of the LionsXII players with one another certainly played a part in the team unity and the understanding between the players were clearly evident, especially against a somewhat disjointed Malaysian side.

Battle Won

Raddy and every player in the team will need no reminder that the battle on the night may be won, but the war is far from over. If we slip up in the next two games, the victory last night will eventually count for nothing.

That said, with Indonesia dropping points, the Lions are now in pole position to qualify from Group B. We are also well-poised to top the group and avoid a potentially tricky fixture against Thailand in the semi-finals.

Post Match Analysis

Concerns

Left-back Shaiful Esah had to be replaced in the second half due to what looked like an ankle injury. Irwan Shah will be a more than able replacement in that position, but Esah's deft delivery from corners and freekicks will be missed should he fail to recover in time against the Indonesians.

Need Improvement

There were many strong performers in the Lions' camp on the night, but midfielder Shi Jiayi was clearly under-par. He was not his usual self as he looked short of match fitness and was struggling to keep pace with the game. He was also culpable of some stray passes in the middle of the park.

Should Raddy look for some fresh legs on the right side of midfield, Fazrul Nawaz will be a natural replacement. He also has the option of introducing Isa Halim and reshuffling the midfield five to deploy Shahdan Sulaiman and Shahril Ishak on either flanks — a move deployed by Sundram for the LionsXII on a couple of occasions.

On a Lighter Note

According to some reports, Malaysia head coach Datuk K. Rajagopal is a very superstitious man. He apparently ordered his team to change shirt colours from their original yellow and black to blue and red (as seen last night) after the 5-1 loss to Indonesia in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup.

Now that Malaysia have lost their opening game in the supposed "away" kit, will Rajagopal order a change back to yellow as they take on Laos on Wednesday?