Kota Bharu – The gallery started to fill up with fans braving the rain in colorful raincoats under the heavy downpour at Kelantan’s Sultan Muhammad IV Stadium some two and a half hours before kick-off. With less than half an hour to go, eight men began beating on their drums, setting the rhythm for the night as a sea of partisan red chanted in sync, against the halting rain, for their team.
And Kelantan responded in kind, with a silky smooth show of passing football. With a bamboozling performance of pass-and-move they mauled the LionsXII 3-0 in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) on Friday night to narrow the gap between themselves and the league leaders at the top of the standings.
Goals from S Chanturu, Norfarhan Mohammad and second half substitute Rizal Fahmi ensured that the Singapore side left Kota Bharu empty handed, with a massive dent put in their title aspirations. V Sundramoorthy’s charges got off to the worst possible start, conceding a third minute penalty when Isa Halim clattered into Norfarhan Mohamad as the Kelantan number 10 sneaked through on goal.
Match official Yusof Mat Karim showed no hesitation as he awarded the spot kick that looked to derail Singapore hopes from the get go. But Hyrulnizam Juma’at, who has been in inspired form since taking the number one spot from the fit-again Izwan Mahbud who has missed some two months of action, displayed just why he earned the spot in the first XI. The 26-year-old dived to his right, smothering Norshahrul Idlan Talaha’s attempt, drawing a collective sigh of disappointment from the some 25,000 fans watching from the stands of Kelantan’s fortress.
That save swelled the LionsXII confidence and the visitors almost took the lead in the ninth minute. Hariss Harun’s header off a deep Shahdan Sulaiman cross found Shahril Ishak with plenty of space at the far post, but it took a superb piece of goalkeeping by Malaysia’s number one, Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, to prevent LionsXII from taking a surprise lead.
But it was Nurul Azwan who wasted what was probably the best chance from open play in the first half after he was set up by S.Chanturu in the 15th minute. With no LionsXII player near him, Nurul opted for a first time shot off the splendid cross, a choice that left him in agony as his attempt went wide.
Kelantan then had the woodwork to thank, as Hariss’ powerful header rocked the cross bar before Shahril saw his rebound blocked on the goal line.
In a match largely dominated by the Red Warriors, LionsXII had no answer to Kelantan’s passing game, with Hyrulnizam again standing in the way of Kelantan. Chanturu came close for the hosts on 55 minutes but his attempt was palmed away by LionsXII custodian.
It seemed only a matter of time before Kelantan found the net against a LionsXII side that did not show up in the second period, but the deadlock was not broken till the 73rd minute.
But it was a goal worth waiting for.
Receiving the ball on the right flank, Norshahrul skipped past Sevki Sha’ban before sending a perfectly weighted cross onto the path of Chanturu, who was unmarked in the 18-yard area. With a spectacular acrobatic volley, the midfielder gave Hyrulnizam no chance, his stunning goal driving the home crowd wild.
Khairul Amri made his first ever MSL appearance for the LionsXII but the introduction of the marksman did precious little to change the course of the game.
The hosts doubled their lead in the 77th minute with football right off the Barcelona training ground. Badri Radzi set up Norfarhan Mohamad with an incisive through pass, and the former lifted the ball over the onrushing Hyrulnizam to put the Red Warriors in the driver’s seat.
Some slack defending in the 85th minute allowed the the defending MSL Champions to cruise to a comfortable 3-0 win. Substitute Indra Putra got on the end of a seemingly harmless corner, and set up Rizal Fahmi who fired home a 25 yard stunner, leaving Hyrulnizam – and the rest of the LionsXII defence – firmly rooted to the ground.
Referee Yusof Mat Karim blew to end proceedings to put Bojan Hodak’s charges are now in pole position for the MSL title.
But despite the massive win, Kelantan’s defender S Subramaniam refused to be carried away.
“I was surprised by the score line but we played very well as a team. I thought LionsXII played well, but we were better tonight. We’re just into our second game of the second round, and I would like to take each game at a time.”
“Everyone did very well tonight, maybe because we were playing a team from Singapore and maybe because it was also the top of the table clash,” he said.
“The atmosphere in the changing room now must be fantastic, and we want to enjoy win.”
LionsXII head coach V Sundramoorthy insisted that his charges will recover from this defeat, and push Kelantan all the way to the finish line.
“On current form, Kelantan will catch us, and (our title chances) really depend on other teams now. But the boys are mentally strong, and they will come back from this.”
“We were up against a good team with many talented players. Coming to Kota Bharu, it’s always a tough battle, but we held up well until the last 17 minutes, and it was a lack of focus and concentration that cost us the game,” Sundram said.
Hodak though, could not have asked for a better birthday present as he saw his charges crush their closest title rivals.
“We took a risk by playing shorter, faster players instead of tall ones to defend against the LionsXII set-pieces today, and it worked.”
“LionsXII were tough from their set pieces and we were lucky that they did not score first, but I cannot ask for anything more from the players with this performance,” said Hodak.
This is the heaviest defeat that the LionsXII have suffered all season, but they will look to get their season back on track when they face Felda United in Malacca on Tuesday.