|By Kenneth Tan
In the end, the various obstacles that the LionsXII faced prevailed over the Singaporean team as they bowed out of the Malaysia Cup on penalties after a 1-1 draw at the end of full time and extra time.
Before the game, the suspensions to Safuwan Baharudin and Irwan Shah meant fringe player Abdil Qaayim and Yasir Hanapi had to slot in at the back.
The LionsXII coped with that makeshift defence well in the first half as they took the lead on 27 minutes after some good work from the frontmen on the counter.
A ball down the right channel saw captain Shahril Ishak square the ball across the box for the unmarked Agu Casmir whose first-time shot looped over ATM FA goalkeeper Farizal Harun to the delirium of the 200 travelling fans.
Stung by that setback, the hosts came out to attack but Baihakki Khaizan and Abdil stood strong at the back to deny the twin threats of Marlon James and Bruno Martelotto.
The closest they came to scoring was on the stroke of half time when Aidil Zafuan's header was plucked onto the post by Izwan Mahbud, with Abdil clearing the danger before Hairuddin Omar could pounce.
Lions XII suffered a setback early in the second half when goalscorer Agu had to come off after sustaining an injury while going for a rebound from Shaiful Esah's deadball.
That meant they lost their focal point of the attack with substitute Khairul Amri coming on.
Other than a couple of scuffed shots from Shahdan and Safirul, it was total domination for ATM from then on.
The home side began to get the benefit of 50-50 decisions, getting many deadball situations in dangerous areas, from referee Shamsudin Ibrahim as the game got heated towards the end.
After having a penalty claim turned down on 63 minutes, previously subdued James also began to come alive to be a constant nuisance in the closing stages.
A long-range belter was well-held by Izwan, a fierce 20-yard freekick was palmed away while a left-footed shot from a tight angle came back off the post with Omar just missing contact at the far post.
Martelotto also cushioned a volley wide from substitute Venice Elphi's cutback.
Rookie Abdil then felt the exertions and had to be replaced by Madhu Mohana 12 minutes before the end as ATM continued to pile on the pressure.
Omar was guilty of missing again as well as he fired just wide while Elphi's close-range shot after cutting inside was deflected over.
It looked like the LionsXII were fated for the final and would survive the barrage of attacks with the clock edging towards the end of the five minutes of injury time awarded.
However the game was allowed to go on all the way until 96 and a half minutes when a Zaquan Adha inswinging cross picked out the head of James, whose towering header went over the reach of the rooted Izwan.
With the scoreline identical to the one at Jalan Besar Stadium last Friday, that meant another 30 minutes to endure for Lions XII, who had already brought off captain Shahril for Jumaat Jantan.
Things became even worse five minutes into extra time when Isa Halim was sent off for a second bookable offence due to an off-the-ground challenge on Zaquan.
However, credit to them, the clearly exhausted remaining 10 men did well to shut out the hosts' threat with Hariss Harun switched to the back to partner Baihakki.
The only time they slipped up was on 117 minutes when James sneaked in between them before letting fly but Izwan denied him with a point-blank save.
Eventually the match had to be decided by the dreaded loterry of penalty shootout.
Lions XII got the initial advantage when Izwan guessed the right way to foil Aidil Zafuan, keeping the scores on 1-1.
However that edge was erased when Farizal pushed Shaiful Esah's penalty onto the post to keep the score on 3-3 before the respective team's fifth kicks.
Martelotto and Izwan then converted their penalties to send the affair into sudden-death.
Baihakki could have been the hero after Varathan Arumugam's effort clipped the bar and went over, however he could only produce a low shot towards his right that was easily touched away by Farizal.
Someone has to be the villain in this never-ending shootout and it was unfortunate that Yasir had to be the one.
Taking responsibility after Fitri Omar's converted kick, his shot came off the left-hand post and to safety, resulting in a tearful ending for the LionsXII's maiden Malaysia Cup campaign.
ATM FA will now go on to the Final on October 20, where they will face either Kelantan or Selangor who play tomorrow.