By Kenneth Tan
Things did not appear to be too rosy for LionsXII head coach V.Sundramoorthy during his preparations for the 2013 Malaysian Super League (MSL) campaign, especially in terms of his central midfield options.
Shahdan Sulaiman’s impressive play-making displays were evident for all to see last term and with the classy midfielder's departure to Tampines Rovers, there were going to be big shoes to fill.
To make things worse, vice-captain Hariss Harun will be ruled out for a few months due to a fibula injury that was sustained at the recent AFF Suzuki Cup in December.
However, after their victorious start in Paroi against ATM FA in their MSL opener, it seems like the LionsXII tactician can put his mind at ease over his midfield woes.
Aided by midfield hard-man Isa Halim, debutant Hafiz Sujad produced an assured performance in shackling Malaysian veteran Shukor Adan in the middle of the park and ultimately played a key role in shutting out the ATM FA attack.
It was a display which belied his tender years and one which, bar no major mishaps, has secured a spot in the starting eleven for their first home game of the season against Selangor FA on Saturday.
After a S.League season where he was largely deployed at left-back with former club Courts Young Lions, the 22-year-old was glad to return to his favoured position despite the heavy responsibilities that come with it.
“Yeah, I’m happy to play in the middle again,” he told Goal.com Singapore after Friday evening’s training session at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
"At the same time, it’s more risky too. If you lose the ball in the middle, it affects the team straightaway."
The ever-humble Hafiz admits that it was a surreal debut for him, but he is not prepared to rest on his laurels yet.
“It’s an real eye-opener for me,” he beamed. “Last year I was watching these big names on TV and this season I’m on the same field with them.
"I thought I played a good game that day, but it’s only the first game of the season and I won’t get carried away. I [have] got to put my head down and keep on working hard for my place.”
The 22-year-old also points out that midfield partner Isa has been a great influence on his game, be it on or off the pitch.
“He’s a player whom I really look up to,” he said. “He’s hardworking in every way and always gives his 100 per cent, which is something I want to emulate. He always give good advice as he’s more experienced.”
Without dead-ball specialist Shaiful Esah in the LionsXII this season, the left-footed Hafiz is relishing the opportunity to take on the mantle of being the team's primary set-piece taker.
“Sundram was the one who appointed me for that” he revealed. “I’m happy with that, if he wants me to take them, I will do my best for the team.”
Playing against Selangor FA will bring back bittersweet memories for Hafiz. The midfielder was part of the Sultan of Selangor’s Cup squad, an annual affair that was played at the Shah Alam Stadium in September last year.
Hafiz wound up conceding a penalty against Selangor veteran Amri Yahyah in a 3-1 defeat, and he vividly remembers the superb environment in that packed stadium.
“Yeah, that was my first experience in facing such a huge crowd and the fans there were awesome. It was a really good experience to take back [with me],” he recalled.
Having been a spectator at a number of LionsXII home games last season, Hafiz acknowledges the thrilling atmosphere that a filled Jalan Besar Stadium can generate and is looking forward to his maiden experience as a player.
“I’ve been here for a few games [last season] and the crowd’s really exciting, but this time I’m the one on the field playing," he said.
"Definitely there’ll be a little bit of pressure, but I will take it slow to build up my momentum tomorrow so that I won’t lose focus."