|By Kenneth Tan
The LionsXII fell to a 1-0 defeat to Selangor PKNS in a top-against-bottom clash on Tuesday night, which was played in front of a near-empty Shah Alam Stadium.
There were two changes made to the starting eleven for the visitors from the triumph against Selangor three days ago – pacy wingers Gabriel Quak and Safirul Sulaiman came in to provide more threat from the flanks, with the former making his first start of the season.
Meanwhile, counterpart Haji Abdul Rahman named an all-local line-up after the late exclusion of Helmi Loussief, with Patrick ‘Ronaldinho’ Wleh already ruled out due to suspension.
On paper, it looked like Sundram’s boys would cruise to an easy victory but full credit has to be given to the PKNS side, who produced a performance that belied their league position.
Captain Helmi Remeli was assured at the back, while Norhakim Hassan provided good runs upfront with Fauzan Dzulkifli and Azrin Khazali in support.
Azrin earned a couple of freekicks early on - the first was curled over by Fauzan on 19 minutes before he stung Izwan Mahbud’s palms with the second 12 minutes later.
The 25-year-old troubled the LionsXII custodian with another snapshot from distance in between that, while Helmi’s freekick inside the box after Izwan’s infringement was deflected wide.
The LionsXII only carved out a solitary opening after 38 minutes, with Fazrul Nawaz dragging a shot just wide after a good one-two with Shahril Ishak.
The Singaporeans picked up where they left off after the break – a training-ground move saw Shahril follow up on his own freekick to head Baihakki Khaizan’s flick-on, but PKNS goalkeeper Remezey Che Ros did well to palm the ball away.
However, they failed to maintain the momentum as the tide soon turned in the home’s side favour as the Red Ants worked relentlessly down the flanks to carve out openings.
One such instance saw Baihakki having to produce two successive blocks to deny Fauzan, but PKNS were looking more threatening as the minutes went by.
It was Nazrin Syamsul who proved to be the hero off the bench, as he struck the match-winner 13 minutes after coming on for Zamri Morshidi.
A half-cleared cross fell to the substitute 25 yards out from goal and the 22-year-old lashed home a stunning left-footed scorcher that left Izwan grasping at thin air.
The Lions XII tried to salvage something from the contest, but they simply couldn't find a way past the PKNS compact defence.
Frustration crept into the visitors' game, and it was Fazrul who bit the bullet in the final minute of injury time with a horrific and late high challenge on Azrin. That left the 27-year-old prostate on the ground, and the stiker with a deserved red card.