Dez Corkhill initially bet on LionsXII to be 'cellar-dwellers' but after seeing their performance thus far, he wouldn't make the same mistake again
By Dez Corkhill
Following the 2-1 come-from behind win at Terengganu on Tuesday night. LionsXII from Singapore currently sit proudly at the top of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) table a point clear of ATM, with a game in hand. And just seven matches to play.
It's a huge surprise to many (myself included) to see them sitting there as early analysis of the squad they took into their second season of the MSL suggested a long, hard season ahead.
The team for 2013 was designated as a developmental squad and would be an under-23 team with six senior players added to the mix. Experienced Internationals such as Khairul Amri, Shaiful Esah, Agu Casmir and Shahdan Sulaiman moved on, and were replaced by the core of a Courts Young Lions team who finished 10th in the S-League - winning just three games.
Add that National Service commitments would deprive the LionsXII of key performers at certain times of the season, plus the lack of a recognised goalscorer and the prediction from this correspondent was mid-table at best. Possible cellar dwellers, even.
On opening day, LionsXII were battered by ATM in Paroi. As commentator for Astro Arena in Malaysia and Starhub in Singapore, I witnessed Marlon James and co. give the Lions the runaround. But Izwan Mahbud in goal was excellent, James missed the kind of chances he normally gobbles up, the woodwork came to the Lions rescue and then, against the run of play, Shahril Ishak scored a scrappy goal from a corner. Lions XII won 1-0.
Since that day, the Lions have performed way above expectations. Defensively, Izwan has built on that opening day performance to become a reliable and occasionally brilliant goalkeeper. Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharuddin have again been the best central defensive pairing - bar none - in the league. With "The Pitbull" Isa Halim offering a screen in front of the back four, and the versatility of the outstanding Hariss Harun alongside him in midfield, LionsXII have built their success on a solid defence. Fifteen games into the season, they have conceded a miserly nine goals.
Home form, which has seen LionsXII record a perfect seven wins from seven League matches, has clearly been the catalyst to catapult them to the top of the table. The tight Jalan Besar Stadium means that the crowd is right on top of the play and even with 5,500 in an 8,000 capacity stadium, the atmosphere can be electric.
But the win in Terengganu also showed that the 2013 Lions have found a way to win on the road as well - and in the face of real adversity. Minus the suspended Faritz Hameed, the National Service committed Faris Ramli, and the injured Irwan Shah, Lions went a goal down with barely 25 minutes to play. History was against them as they had not won - nor even scored - in their three previous 4.45pm kick off matches. With admirable resilience, the outstanding Baihakki Khaizan powered home his second goal of the season, and then - despite Madhu Mohana seeing red for two bookable challenges - they scored a last minute winner via an own goal. It was the kind of backs-to-the-wall triumph that wins Championships.
As their points tally has grown, so Lions players have responded to the opportunities. Players promoted from the Courts Young Lions have matured. Faritz Hameed at full back has yet to be given the runaround and Hafiz Sujad has proved adept both in midfield and left back.
Recently, new attacking players have started to make the headlines. The much vaunted Shafiq Ghani scored twice in a 3-1 win against ATM to show that the Lions have some goalscoring potential other than last season's top scorer, Shahril Ishak. Wingers Nazrul Nazari and Faris Ramli - particularly at Jalan Besar - have shown themselves to be real attacking threats. Gabriel Quak has given some cameo performances from the bench, and now playmaker Zulfahmi Arifin - fully recovered from injury - is getting a chance in central midfield.
Three goal salvo's against Pahang and ATM at Jalan Besar, added to some dour but effective performances on the road which have secured four draws (three of them goalless) and two wins from eight matches see them top of the table with only ATM keeping pace. Lions have a game in hand - and matches are running out.
There are tough hurdles still ahead. They have still to travel North to take on exciting Pahang, improving Perak and they end the season at defending Champions, Kelantan. At home, Johor Darul Takzim's visit to Singapore on June 22nd promises to be a massive occasion.
There is still time for the Lions to stumble. But having written them off once already this season, I'm not prepared to do so again.