By Abhishek Mehrotra
LIONSXII managed to eke out a draw to keep their hopes of a final appearance alive thanks to Safuwan Baharudin's headed goal after Marlon James had put the visitors ahead with a well-taken strike in the 55th minute.
It was a patchy performance by the Malaysia Super League runners-up in front of more than 7000 home fans and Sundram, who turned 46 on Saturday, put it down to the tension.
"After many years we are back in the semi-finals and the nerves got to the boys. Some of them were jittery, but I thought they would overcome it especially after the first 15 minutes," he explained.
"I've been a player, I know it's difficult to get started, but after 15-20 minutes you should be getting into the game. But today [Friday], I felt that they took longer and we really never settled even in the second-half. We gave away the ball very cheaply when we had the option to pass it."
LIONSXII have been lethal from dead-ball situation this season, and it was no surprise that the equaliser, when it arrived, came via that route when Safuwan rose highest to thump Shahdan Sulaiman's delivery into the top corner nine minutes from time.
That strike vindicated Sundram's move to move the central defender up late in the game in a bid to force the issue.
"We were using Safuwan to flick the ball on and try to put pressure on the opponents. We got a priceless equaliser," he stated.
"That's the positive of our game today and in we still stand a chance. I'm confident I'll come out with a plan to go into the final."
The bad news for the Singapore-outfit is that Safuwan will be suspended for the second leg after picking up a second yellow in the knockout stages. "We will miss him," said Sundram. With Sevki Sha'ban also picking up a serious looking knee injury late in the game, the defence has a bare-bones look about it.
Nonetheless, Sundram is aware there is only one approach he can adopt in the return leg next week.
"What choice do we have? We need to score, we need to win the game - it's not going to be easy. But it's part of football. We'll go there and give it the best shot because we [have] got nothing to lose.
"We have enough players - they have to turn up. We will try to give an opportunity to the younger players and maybe they can take this chance and play well.
"We're playing against a good team. We need to be really ready for the game. I think it's going to be a very, very hard game," concluded the 46-year-old.
Meanwhile, ATM coach B. Sathianathan was in no doubt that his team was leaving the Jalan Besar Stadium with the upper hand.
"Definitely," he asserted when asked if his team held the advantage. "The away goal is a bonus."
The 54-year-old was happy that striker James, despite being shackled by Baihakki Khaizan for the majority of the match, had managed to take the one chance that came his way.
James managed to give his marker the slip before latching on to a diagonal ball from K Reuben and slotting it past Izwan Mahbud to open the scoring.
"How can you say Baihakki kept him quiet when he scored on goal," bristled Sathianathan when pressed about how well the LIONSXII defender had done to keep his striker quiet.
"As a striker he [James] got one chance and took it.
"And I'm sure it was Baihakki who was following him that time. Baihakki is a good player, he's more experienced, I know. But the most important thing in football is the goal.
"[Former England striker] Gary Lineker may not score for 89 minutes, but then he scores in the last minute that wins him the cup. Finish."
The ATM manager also felt his side had been unfortunate to concede the equaliser late in the game.
"[We were] very unlucky to concede. In the first half, they had one or two shots on goal from outside the box - that was it. Other than that, it was just Agu Casmir who gave us a few problems," he said.
However, Sathianathan did not see anything unusual in home side's approach to the game, despite most observers feeling they had been more conservative than expected.
"I don't think they were cautious. That's their style of play. I've seen many of their games - they play to their strengths."
And despite the tie now firmly in their favour, the former Malaysia national coach warned it wasn't over yet.
"Maybe we won the battle, but there's still a war to win - so I think it's better I don't speak about the final.
"I know Singapore [LIONSXII] is a very hard team to crack. They're very, very strong in defence - they don't open up like some of the other teams we've played. They're always dangerous.
"We have an away goal advantage, but there's still a lot to play for. Singapore [LIONSXII] is always dangerous - their away record is good. I hope we get a chance and we score."
The candid manager wasn't shy of taking a parting shot or two at Jalan Besar's artifical pitch.
"It takes a lot of toll playing on this turf. If this turf is so good, like so many people say, they Manchester United should have this kind of grass. I think even Pele, when he comes here first, would find it quite difficult if he doesn't train on it."
ATM will be back in familiar territory on grass when they host the LIONSXII at the Majlis Perbandaran Selayang Stadium on Thursday, October 11 for the second leg with the winner facing either Kelantan or Selangor in the title clash on Saturday, October 20.