BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Currently in his second season with Selangor, Nigerian centre back Ugo Ukah is having a sterling season with the Red Giants.
After 12 rounds of the Malaysia Super League have been played, the Red Giants currently sit in fourth, with his side having conceded only 14 goals, the second best defending record in the league currently.
Just before Selangor's match against Sarawak last Tuesday, Goal managed to catch up with the former Parma defender, to talk about Selangor's defence and the difference in their 2016 and 2017 seasons.
According to the 33-year old defender, the change made by head coach Maniam Pachaiappan, from the more traditional 4-4-2 formation to 3-4-3 has brought more protection for Selangor's goal.
"Statistically, we are the second best (defensively) in the league after JDT. If it weren't for the match against PKNS FC (which ended in a 5-3 win to PKNS) where we conceded many goals, I think we would be first now.
"We're happy. Although we've had to adapt to a different formation, as previously we played with four defenders and now it's three in the back, it's a bit different but we're enjoying it.
"We feel that (playing) with full backs, now it's like playing with five defenders. We're solid, it's very difficult to find space against us.
"As long as we keep it like this and try to perform well upfront, score goals and create chances, I think everything will be good," he explained.
But of course there was the match against local rivals PKNS in February, whereby the Red Giants defence shipped five goals in that match alone. They started brightly in the match with youngster Syahmi Safari opening the scoring as early as the first minute, but lapses in concentration saw them end the match losing 5-3.
According to Ukah, what led to the defeat and the number of goals they conceded in the match was the combination of a different kick-off time, and simply a bad day at the office.
"That was a (late) afternoon game, and when you usually play in the evening it's a bit different in terms of the schedule of the day, what you have to do to prepare for the game.
"We started very well to score immediately, and I feel we took our foot off the pedal and relaxed a little bit, and PKNS converted the chances they had.
"It's that kind of game where you go into it trying to do your best, but things just don't work out," he explained, a little at loss for words himself.
Ukah playing in the match against PKNS. Photo from PKNS FC Facebook
However, things at the club are looking up according to him, and he credits the Red Giants' board and coaching staff for steadying the ship following their pre-season upheavals.
"We've had some problems in the beginning of the season, a change in management and losing some players who were important to us.
"We've had to rebuild everything very quickly, and credit to the management and the coaching staff, they managed to put together a team, give them shape and purpose.
"We play hard every game, and I believe we're doing fine," said Ukah.
And Ukah reminded us that their moderate success so far this season has been achieved despite not having their best players from last season.
"...everything is well now, our team spirit is good. We lost some good players, but the players who are here this season are doing their best and I can say we're happy.
"We are trying to reach the target set by the management and our own personal targets, so far so good," he pointed out.
When enquired about their target of finishing the league this season in a top-three position, he answered that Selangor are still on course, if they can maintain their mental strength.
"I think we can make it, you must believe in the quality and in yourself. There have been some games when we thought we were second best, but when things did not go our way, we still showed spirit and courage.
"We have the quality to do that, we need to perform our best every game, mentally, physically and technically. We are trying to work on that mental aspect, and I've seen some results.
"For example in the game against Pahang (2-2 league draw in April). Although Pahang were the favourites, we dominated the game. They equalised late in the game, and it was from an offside position too.
"In football you have bad days and such, but I feel with the shape that we are in now, we have been doing our best to achieve that target," responded Ukah.