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Wounded Lions still have bite for AFF Championship

KUALA LUMPUR – Faris Ramli fondly remembers playing in a packed Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur with most of the 80,000-strong crowd cheering for Kelantan and jeering his LionsXII side, making it almost impossible to hear his teammates on the pitch as both teams battled in the 2015 Malaysia FA Cup final.

The 30-year-old smiled as he recalled how he shushed the packed stadium when he opened the scoring in the seventh minute – latching onto Izzdin Shahfiq’s through ball, rounding the goalkeeper and slotting into the corner – before the LionsXII went on to win 3-1.

“It is all about focus, composure and enjoying the moment,” said the winger, who was part of the all-Singaporean underdog side who became the first foreign team to lift the trophy.

“Footballers should live to play in front of crowds like these. For us, such opportunities are uncommon, so we should embrace the occasion and channel it into positive energy.”

On Tuesday, Faris is hoping to repeat the winning feat when Malaysia host Singapore in their do-or-die Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship final Group B match at the same venue.

Third in the group and one point behind the second-placed Lions, the Harimau Malaya need to win to force themselves into the top two and the semi-finals, while Singapore need only a draw to progress.

Despite losing key strikers and brothers Ikhsan (33 caps, 17 goals) and Ilhan Fandi (eight caps, two goals) to knee injuries, leaving just Shawal Anuar, Amy Recha and Faris, Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya is adamant he still has enough firepower in his squad.

He said: “Yes, we lost quite a few players, but we have other good players in the squad and players who can play in multiple positions, so we will manage.”

Faris pointed out that just like how they have been defending well as a team, other players have contributed goals with midfielder Shah Shahiran netting against Myanmar and defender Irfan Fandi scoring against Laos.

He added: “Our motto has always been ‘one team, one strong’ and we showed that in our past three games. Yes, we are sad to see injuries to our teammates, but we also have to move on and continue to fight for the results we want.”

It has been a difficult season for Faris. After grabbing 17 goals and eight assists in 27 games and winning the 2019 Player of the Year award with Hougang United, his output dipped to 12 goals and 16 assists in 60 games for Terengganu and Lion City Sailors in the next three seasons, and he was released by the Sailors.

But the clubless Faris has a new-found calm, saying: “Usually, this would be a worrying situation, but I feel I have done well to overcome a heel injury at the start of the season to end strong (four goals and seven assists in his last 10 league games).

“One door closes but another one will open, and I’m looking forward to a new challenge.”

Similarly, Singapore’s injury woes could pave the way for midfielder Song Ui-young to be more involved in this tournament in an advanced role and add to his 15 caps and three international goals.

The 29-year-old has played just 101 minutes in this tournament as he is working his way back from a quadriceps injury. But he does have experience playing as a false nine at club level, memorably scoring 20 goals in 27 games for Home United in 2018. Song also had a good scoring season for the Sailors in 2022 with 16 goals in 31 games.

The South Korea-born player said: “It was not easy to be out for two months with the injury, but I’m back and I feel strong and ready to help the national team now in any way possible.”

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