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The LionsXII head coach is wary of the challenge from his former club, but is confident that his current team has what it takes to defend the title

Having signed Hariss Harun and Baihakki Khaizan from the LionsXII at the end of last season, as well as recruiting Malaysia Under-23 captain Irfan Fazail and ex-Argentinean international Pablo Aimar, Johor Darul Takzim’s (JDT) team seems to be booming with superstars.

Such is their strength on paper that LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad has identified the Johor side as the team to beat in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) this season.  

The LionsXII are set for a mouthwatering clash with JDT in less than two weeks time at the Tan Sri Dato’ Hassan Yunos Stadium in only their third MSL game of the season. Despite that daunting task so early on, Fandi is unfazed at facing the club he managed only last year, stating that his team has what it takes to retain the title.

“On paper Johor is the best team, but I think there are four to five teams that can win the league, including LionsXII,” Fandi told reporters at the pre-season press conference at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday.

“We are the defending champions and we hope to achieve our target, which is a top three finish, but I feel we can defend the title.”

The former Singapore international feels that his experience coaching the Johor side last season will help the LionsXII this season.

“Generally I’ve watched many of the teams last season,” Fandi said.

“I know how Johor plays, I know how Pahang plays and even Kelantan. That’s where it’s crucial for us to strategise our game plan on match day.”

Still, the 51-year-old is aware of the challenges that lie ahead for the young team, especially when they play away from home.

“Maybe playing away from home [is the biggest challenge] for some of them,” Fandi admitted.  

“That’s why during pre-season we had games in a hostile environment [in Indonesia]. Some of the players are very young, and some of them haven’t played enough S.League matches.”

Nevertheless, Fandi feels that as long as the team focuses maintains their formidable home form and keep their positive attitude; they will have every chance of retaining the title.

"It’s important how I lead this team, not to challenge anybody, but to challenge ourselves and our players,” he said.

“To bring them to a higher level, we don’t look at other teams, we look at ourselves and how far we can go, [such as] whether we can collect three points which is very important especially at home because we are untouched at home for 20 games. It’s a challenge for us to achieve that.

“But I know the boys are hungry. They had good response to the training in the last two weeks, which is very important.”

The LionsXII are set to face Pahang at the Darul Makmur Stadium later tonight at 8.45pm in the opening game of the MSL season.

The match will be shown ‘live’ on StarHub’s free sports channel SuperSports Arena (StarHub TV Channels 112 and 201, and 76.25Mhz).

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