Singapore Premier League • May 10, 2019

Young Lions aim to continue progress against Warriors


SINGAPORE, 10 MAY 2019 – Led by national legend Fandi Ahmad, the Young Lions punched above their weight in 2018 as they finished seventh in the Singapore Premier League (SPL).

Not many tipped them to do the same this season after losing key players in almost every department.

Irfan Fandi joined Thai League 2 side side BG Pathum United, while younger brother Ikhsan – top scorer with eight goals last season – left for Norwegian second-tier side Raufoss IL. Captain Taufiq Muqminin and midfield playmaker Hami Syahin both moved to Home United.

This saw Fandi promote a number of players from the national Under-17s and Under-18s, such as Nur Adam Abdullah, Rezza Rezky and Syahadat Masnawi.

Despite that, the Young Lions have managed two wins and one draw after seven matches to sit sixth and have not lost by more than a goal since the opening 4-1 defeat to Balestier Khalsa.

“Before the season, I said that we’d be happy if we can finish off the bottom,” Fandi told the official SPL website. “It’s not easy coming into the SPL where it is a totally different level of football. The boys are coping well and are up for the challenge, but we can do better.”

The 56-year-old singled out composure and compactness as areas to improve in. “In terms of experience, we are far behind; sometimes, the other team dominates and the boys get jittery,” he said. “Games like the one against Albirex (Niigata, where we conceded a stoppage-time winner)… we should not have lost, but this is part of the learning process. It’s important that we keep fighting and have the belief.”

Skipper Joshua Pereira is relishing the role of guiding “the younger ones” as they aim to make the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games squad at the end of the year.

“I was pretty surprised to be named captain,” said the 21-year-old, now into his fourth season with the Young Lions. “In all honesty, I didn’t fare too well in pre-season and Coach Fandi did tell me off a few times, but I’m glad he did because it motivated me to work harder and push myself further.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy year but credit to the boys, who have kept working hard and left their hearts out on the pitch in every single game.

“We’ve progressed well since a huge loss in the first game. One of the best attributes about this group of boys (is that) they always keep pushing to be better!”

Pereira believes their 1-0 win last week against Balestier was testament to their progress. “I told the boys before the game that we can’t lose to them again,” he revealed. “Everyone dug in and gave everything we got, so it was nice to come away with the victory.”

Forward Syukri Bashir, who scored the winning goal, has enjoyed leading the line since his move from Hougang United in the off-season.

“It has been good working under Coach Fandi, who always reminds us that he is preparing us to be future national team players,” said the 21-year-old, whose target is to reach double digits this season.

“It has been quite challenging as I had to adapt to a different playing style that involves high pressing and fast counter-attacks, but I can feel that my game is slowly improving.

“My job is also easier with players like Saifullah (Akbar) and Haiqal (Pashia) supporting me in attack. They are really good dribblers, so all I have to focus on is making the runs and giving them support.”

Up next for the Young Lions is a double-header against Warriors FC on Saturday and next Friday.

Bottom-placed Warriors have endured a wretched start to the campaign with just one point from seven outings, despite having the likes of Gabriel Quak, Sahil Suhaimi, Khairul Nizam and Jonathan Behe in their ranks.

Former head coach Jorg Steinebrunner is set to return for a second stint and defender Delwinder Singh believes there is ample time for them to turn their season around.

“Things are not as bad as it seems,” the 26-year-old said. “It’s still possible for us to get into the top five. It’s about putting in a run of wins, maybe two or three and then we’ll be close to some of the other teams.

“Of course, we do not like the feeling of losing. We are working hard as a team to make things better and the only way is up now.

“Young Lions have a group of players who have nothing to lose. It will be tough against them but I believe we can get the win if we work together as a team.”

Vice-captain Sahil has enjoyed wearing the captain’s armband in most games and is hoping to add to his tally of two goals.

“Wearing the armband definitely adds more pressure but I just have to do my job and lead by example on the pitch,” the 26-year-old forward said. “I’m slowly gaining back my form and hopefully, I can score more.

“We shouldn’t be at the bottom with the players we have. Now we are adapting to the new coach’s style quickly and hopefully, we can start the second round well to close the gap.”

Fandi chose to preach caution, noting that Warriors can be a dangerous side on their day and warned his side of a tough game in store.

“Warriors are an experienced team with good players like Behe and Sahil,” said the former Warriors coach, who led them to title triumphs in 2000 and 2002. “I don’t know what’s happening with them at the moment, but results don’t show everything.

“We have to do our best and fight for every ball in order to get a result. Mentally we’re strong, but physically we need to push a bit more at this level.”

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