Strong second-half display sees LionsXII salvage draw
LionsXII 1-1 Johor Darul Takzim
(Safuwan Baharudin 82') (Leonel Nunez 9')
SINGAPORE, 22 June 2013: It was a pulsating night of football at Jalan Besar Stadium as the LionsXII held nearest challengers Johor Darul Takzim to a 1-1 draw.
Safuwan Baharudin's equaliser eight minutes from time ensured the gap at the top of the table was maintained at a healthy four points.
LionsXII coach V Sundramoorthy made two changes to the starting lineup against Selangor PKNS - bringing in Irwan Shah and Nazrul Nazari, while opting to select Shakir Hamzah despite the latter only returning to training on Friday.
The first half however turned out to be a below-par one for his side with the visitors getting their noses ahead after just nine minutes of play.
An innocuous ball over the top caught the LionsXII defence on the backfoot, as Leonel Nunez stole in between Shakir and Izwan Mahbud to slot home the opening goal of the night.
This was the only second time which they have fell behind at home this season, thus it took a while for them to get going.
Hariss Harun attempted to get his side going by spraying diagonal balls, while Fazrul Nawaz was trying his utmost best to set up his fellow attackers. However the strong centre back partnership of Aidil Zafuan and Ahmad Tharmini Saiban kept the LionsXII largely at bay.
Apart from a couple of efforts from captain Shahril Ishak - a 35-yard freekick which was tipped over while another close-range shot which went disappointingly over the bar, the LionsXII attacks often fizzled out at the crucial moment.
Sundram knew he had to react as he brought on Faris Ramli for the ineffectual Gabriel Quak five minutes before the break to inject more intensity into his attack.
Johor did maintain their lead till half time, and it was the LionsXII substitute who nearly found the equaliser two minutes after the restart.
A superb through ball from Fazrul set Faris racing through but he was unable to force the ball in from a tight angle.
Izwan had to be alert to push away a Safee Sali cross-shot soon after, but it was almost all LionsXII throughout.
Shahril had another long-range freekick tipped over by Al Hafiz Hamzah, Nazrul's snapshot from a half-cleared corner was collected by the Johor custodian, while Safuwan and Faris both fired volleys out of range.
Sundram sensed blood as he threw on two forwards in Khairul Nizam and Shahfiq Ghani in an attempt to get the equaliser.
The former nearly made an immediate impact as he nodded just wide from a Faris cross seconds after coming on, while Safuwan headed over from Shahril's corner.
Their efforts finally paid off on 82 minutes when Faris was brought down just outside the area by Nazri Ahmad.
Shahril's freekick caused chaos in the Johor box with Faritz Hameed forcing a save from Hamzah. The rebound fell to Safuwan who did superbly to spin and hit a crisp low shot beyond the crowd of players.
It was a goal which sent the majority of the 7,650 attending fans wild as there was still time for the LionsXII to find a winner.
Hopes were further boosted with Zaquan getting a straight red card with a two-footed challenge on Irwan Shah.
However they huffed and puffed, they could not bring the Johor house down for another time.
Safuwan's header dropped just wide of the post, while Nizam's header went just over the bar.
Nizam had the final opportunity four minutes into injury time, but his first touch from Shahfiq's long ball let him down at the crucial moment.
In the end, the LionsXII had to be satisfied with a point collected from this hard-fought encounter.
Sundram: We could have found the winner
Sundram was still a satisfied man at the post-match press conference even though his side lost their 100 percent home record.
"I wasn't angry with our performance," he insisted.
"We did start off slowly, Johor were positive from the start - moving up high in the pitch and pushing up attackers to get goals. They got in through a mix-up from us, but we were slowly getting into the game late in the first half.
We made some adjustments and the second half was all about us - we kept pressing and running, we could have even scored the second goal in the dying minutes."
He also paid tribute to the performances of his substitutes.
"Faris is a player with great potential," he analysed.
"Whenever he has the ball, he takes on defenders - this is something not many Singaporean players can do. Meanwhile Shahfiq were great with his passes and Nizam could have scored in the last minute."
With the four-point lead maintained, the Dazzler turned his attentions to the midweek game against Perak FA.
"This is our most important game," he explained.
"Perak is a tough team, with a Brazilian striker who score goals at will. Johor will have the easier run-in, thus we need to win this game.
If we do so, we can basically wrap up the title against Felda United next."
Meanwhile Johor assistant coach Ismail Ibrahim was left slightly disappointed not to be able to close the gap on the league leaders.
"We came here to get three points," he said.
"The boys did really well in the first half - being organized and disciplined in defence, but it was a lack of concentration in the second which led to the equaliser.
We knew the LionsXII are dangerous with their deadballs and we already prepared the defenders to deal with it, but it still happened."
With three games left to go, he maintained the belief that his side can still clinch the title.
"Anything can happen really," he concluded.
"The league is still very open and we'll try to win our last three games now."
The LionsXII will play Perak FA away on Tuesday, June 25 before returning to face Felda United for their final home game of the season on Tuesday, July 2.