LIONSXII see off ATM challenge to reclaim lead

LIONSXII moved back on top of the Malaysia Super League on Saturday evening after producing a brilliant display to beat title rivals ATM 3-1.

The 21-year-old curls home a sublime effort.
Gabriel Tan

By Gabriel Tan

Reporting from the Jalan Besar Stadium

Rising star Shahfiq Ghani stole the show once again with a brilliant display, opening the scoring in the 27th minute, before captain Shahril Ishak doubled the hosts' lead on the stroke of halftime when he stroked home a penalty.

ATM briefly had hopes of pulling off a comeback when Marlon Alex James scored from close range a minute after the hour mark, but their opponents wrapped up the three points in the 71st minute when Shahfiq netted his second with a sublime long-range effort.

While Saturday's clash was already important given Darul Takzim had overtaken them at the top of the table on Friday with a 1-0 win over Pahang, victory was all the more important for LIONSXII given ATM were also in the title reckoning and entered the game just three points behind their opponents.

The task had already been difficult given LIONSXII's first-choice centre-back duo Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin, but coach V. Sundramoorthy did receive a boost just before kickoff when vice-captain Hariss Harun passed a late fitness test and was named in the starting XI.

His presence in the heart of defence was certainly needed given the ATM attack was led by Marlon Alex James, the league's top scorer with 12 games to his name already, and he carved out the first real chance of the game in the 10th minute when he flicked the ball into the path of D. Christie Jayaseelan, only for the winger to blast way over from the edge of the area.

Six minutes later, ATM keeper Farizal Harun had to produce an excellent save to prevent Shahril from firing the hosts ahead, sticking out a hand to push wide his goal-bound effort wide after the LIONSXII skipper had pounced on a Amirizdwan Taj Tajuddin clearance and drilled a low effort towards goal.

Amirizdwan then produced a vital interception in the 23rd minute to deny Shahfiq a one-on-one chance, after Shahril pounced on a poor clearance by Irwan Fadzli Idrus and looked set to release his team-mate with a searching cross.

Shahfiq was starting to get into some good positions inside the area and he narrowly failed to connect with Irwan Shah's blistering cross in the 26th minute, as the LIONSXII pushed forward once more in a move that was initiated by Faris Ramli, who had gone on a brilliant run past three men down the left.

But a minute later, the 21-year-old's perseverance paid off. Racing onto an excellent through-ball by Isa Halim, Shahril broke down the right and send a pinpoint first-time cross to the near post to Shahfiq, who made no mistake as he clinically side-footed the ball into the back of the net.

Unhappy with the way Safwan Hasyim was getting beaten down the left, ATM coach B. Sathianathan immediately shuffled his side and replaced the left-back with Affize Faisal, and the ex-Harimau Muda youngster made an instant impact.

Seven minutes before the break, the versatile midfielder received possession from Rezal Zambery Yahya on the edge of the box and let fly, only to send his strike over the bar.

But right on the stroke of halftime, and just when the LIONSXII looked as though they would be content to take a one-goal lead into the break, they were handed a glorious chance to add a second after Nazrul Nazari burst free inside the area and was tripped just as he was about to go around Amirizdwan.

After the dust had settled, Shahril stepped up and - in clinical fashion as ever - fired his spot-kick into the bottom corner, sending Farizal the wrong way in the process.

Nonetheless, ATM deserved credit for the way they fought back when the second half got underway and after an evenly-contested spell, they made it 2-1 in the 61st minute after Shukor Adan made an intelligent dummy at the near post to allow a corner to reach James, who was left with a simple tap-in from four yards out.

Two minutes later, the 36-year-old had another sighting at goal when he met a lovely cross by Bruno Martelotto and send the ball towards goal with a looping header, only to see it sail just over.

Aware that their opponents were beginning to gain the ascendancy, the LIONSXII stepped up their game in a bid to find a third goal to kill off the contest, and they did just that ten minutes after their opponents had pulled one back.

Faris, embarking on another blinding run down the left, cut inside his man before playing it to Shahfiq, and although there appeared to be little danger when he received the ball, he proceeded to curl a sublime left-footed effort past a stranded Farizal and into the back of the net to help his side reclaim their two-goal lead.

11 minutes later, the hosts could have added a fourth when Hafiz Abu Sujad charged down the left on the overlap and whipped in a dangerous cross that Farizal did well to punch clear before Fazrul Nawaz could pounce. Picking up the rebound, Faris fired a powerful effort back towards goal, only for the ATM keeper to make another save.

Another goal certainly would not have been unfair given the way the LIONSXII had dominated the match, but even though they had to settle for a two-goal winning margin when the final whistle was sounded, the jubilation on their faces was clear for all to see as Sundramoorthy led his side back to the top of the Super League.

LIONSXII: Izwan Mahbud, Faritz Hameed, Hariss Harun, Shakir Hamzah, Irwan Shah (Fazrul Nawaz 78'), Isa Halim, Nazrul Nazari, Izzdin Shafiq (Hafiz Abu Sujad 66'), Shahril Ishak (Aqhari Abdullah 73'), Faris Ramli, Shahfiq Ghani.

ATM: Farizal Harun, K. Reuben, Amirizdwan Taj Tajuddin, Irwan Fadzli Idrus, Safwan Hasyim (Affize Faisal 30'), D. Christie Jayaseelan (Nizarudin Yusof 81'), Rezal Zambery Yahya (Venice Elphi 67'), Shukor Adan, Bruno Martelotto, Hairuddin Omar, Marlon Alex James.

Attendance: 7,198

Image courtesy of FAS (Shao Jie)



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