Fandi to LionsXII: Forget the pressure and just enjoy the final
Fandi urges his men to forget the pressure and just 'enjoy' the final
The heat was turned up in Kuala Terengganu on Saturday night, tempers boiled over, on the pitch and in the stands, and Fandi Ahmad's LionsXII only escaped by the skin of their teeth.
The Singapore side lost 3-2 to Terengganu on the night, but slipped into the final of the Malaysian FA Cup on the away-goals rule, after the two-leg semi-final ended 4-4 on aggregate.
Fandi insisted that the secret to getting the job done in Terengganu was having the players step out onto the pitch fear-free, to enjoy their football.
And that is the mantra he will stick by as the LionsXII prepare for their first appearance in a final across the Causeway, against Kelantan this Saturday at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
"The best way to get the best out the players is not to put pressure on them. I told them this at half-time against Terengganu, and it's the same mindset that we will adopt as we prepare for the final - we must enjoy our football," said the former Singapore skipper.
"There were scary moments, but the players did not panic much at all. In fact, they showed a lot of grit and determination, even though Terengganu were all over us - and that is definitely what I want to see in the final."
The LionsXII sit in eighth spot in the 12-team Malaysian Super League (MSL), on 13 points, with Kelantan 10th, three points adrift, but Fandi insists that his charges are "definitely the underdogs" for the final.
They lost 2-0 in Kota Baru on the opening day of the season, and the LionsXII have lost six of seven fixtures against Kelantan since their entry into Malaysia's domestic football competitions in 2012.
The solitary win came in their MSL-winning 2013 season, a 1-0 victory in a year when the LionsXII's Jalan Besar home was a veritable fortress.
"Kelantan have been quite unstoppable at Kota Baru, but we're not playing the final there - there won't be a mental block against them at Bukit Jalil.
"We just have to enjoy our football, and believe," said Fandi, who will have the services of four players from Aide Iskandar's South-east Asia Games squad.
Ace winger Faris Ramli, Sahil Suhaimi, Christopher van Huizen and Zakir Samsudin will rejoin the LionsXII on Wednesday after returning from a week-long training camp in Japan today, and Fandi is looking forward to having more options going into the final.
"Having them back will be a morale booster for the team, and Faris will definitely strengthen us.
"We had to play with a half-fit Raihan Rahman against Terengganu and that almost backfired on us," said Fandi, who withdrew Raihan at half-time for Firdaus Kasman, a move that required winger Narzul Nazari to drop into defence.
"I'm just happy that we will have more options now."
No foreign team have appeared in the FA Cup final in the 26-year history of the competition, and for Fandi, this will be his third chance to win the competition, and he hopes for a little more luck this time around.
He took S.League side Courts Young Lions to the semi-finals in 2006, when they lost 3-2 on aggregate to Perlis, then lost 1-0 to Kelantan in the 2013 final as coach of Johor Darul Ta'zim.
"Hopefully I'll be third time lucky. I think a win in the final will be helpful for Singapore football, as well.
"It can help us win the trust of fans and maybe get them to come back and support us again," said Fandi who is acutely aware of the task that lies ahead.
"Malaysian football is hard, it takes more than skill, technique and good tactics to win, you need grit and determination.
"And the only way to get that, is to relax, and enjoy the football."