Largest margin of victory win ensures 100% record against East Malaysian outfits and helps to maintain gap over the chasing packWhen both teams first met in Kota Kinabalu in late January, the match was notable for being an ill-tempered match interrupted by numerous crunching tackles and player altercations.
Thankfully, the reverse fixture at Jalan Besar Stadium proved to be a contrasting affair as both sides focused on the footballing aspects of the game, and the LionsXII especially were simply irresistible on the night putting nine goals past Sabah with captain Hariss Harun grabbing a hattrick.
It took awhile for the home side to get going and when they finally did, the much-maligned Agu Casmir was at the heart of it.
On the 18th minute, Agu found space and time on the right wing and he delivered a delicious searching cross which was met by the onrushing Irwan Shah but he failed to direct his header goalwards. The subsequent clearance eventually found Shahdan Sulaiman whose vision allowed him to thread a through ball to Irwan Shah but yet again, the end result was disappointing.
A succession of corners soon followed and on the 20th minute, the home side was eventually rewarded as Baihakki Khaizan won the initial header which was eventually helped across goal by Casmir.
If the goal had emphasized the need for Sabah to mark Baihakki closer in set-piece situations, they clearly failed to heed it, as on the 23rd minute, the towering centre-back yet again won another header off a corner which was saved by the goalkeeper. But the ball eventually reached Hariss Harun who volleyed into an empty net.
The stand-in captain had been in domineering form of late and seemed to thrive with the added responsibility rather than being burdened by it.
This was again on show on the 42nd minute as after receiving the ball on the edge of the area, Hariss raced past a static Sabah backline before arching his body and expertly dispatching the ball past Irwan Jamil for the third goal of the night.
As the teams trudged off at the break, Sabah would fully well appreciate that the second-half would be nothing more than an exercise in damage limitation.
For the first twenty minutes, they kept to their task well as they defended higher up the pitch and limited the amount of clear-cut chances for the home side.
However, a moment of individual brilliance undid their initial resolve as Casmir’s lofted cut-back was chested by Shadan Sulaiman who then proceeded to nonchalantly lob the ball over the despairing dive of Irwan Jamil.
From there, it all went downhill for Sabah and on the 66th minute, a quick break saw Agu cut in from the left flank before delivering an inch-perfect cross for Juma'at Jantan to unselfishly cut back across goal for Shahdan to record his second goal of the night.
Three minutes later, Irwan Shah ensured the largest margin of victory in the MSL for the LionsXII as he sidefooted home yet another inviting cross from the impressive Casmir.
Buoyed by the goals and the ecstatic support, the home side continued to press on, and on the 76th minute, great interplay down the left wing saw Shaiful Esah cut back to Hariss Harun and the captain duly obliged to record his hat-trick and the seventh goal of the night.
The home side was not done however, and on the 85th minute, substitute Sufian Anuar got one to his name as he headed in a free-kick courtesy of Shaiful Esah’s trademark left peg.
To further rub salt into the wound, there was still time for an own goal as Sharul Azhar’s desperate slide was only successful in helping to divert Irwan Shah’s cut-back into his own net.
As the referee blew the whistle for full-time, all the fans roundly stood up to applause the players for their tremendous performance. One thing is definitely for certain - the MSL title may end up in Kota Bharu this season, but if the players consistently display this kind of performance, it won’t be long before the trophy finds its way down south to Singapore.