They were tasked with ushering a new era for Singapore football after a disappointing string of results last year.
But the LionsXII’s first foray into the Malaysian Super League was always going to be a tough test, especially against the defending champions, Kelantan FA.
Despite that, the Lions started the match brightly, attacking right from the first whistle, with the Kelantan defenders struggling to cope with the strong physical presence of striker Agu Casmir.
However is was Kelantan who came closest to scoring in the first 15 minutes when Lebanese winger Zakaria Charara’s shot was parried by goalkeeper Izwan Mahmud.
But the LionsXII defied the critics and took the lead in the 33rd minute when defender Bhaihakki Khaizan rose the highest in a packed penalty area to head the ball home.
Kelantan went on the attack after the goal but struggled to find a way past the LionsXII back four expertly marshalled by Khaizan. Even Casmir was seen running back on several occasions to deny the Malaysians time and time again.
But their efforts were undone seconds before the half-time whistle when Kelantan star striker Norshahrul Idlan Talaha equalised to silence the 7,000-strong crowd at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
That goal knocked the wind out of the LionsXII who struggled to find any form of rhythm in the attacking half.
Thankfully, Kelantan were not playing any fluent football themselves and struggled to find any openings on goal or capitalise on set-pieces.
However the LionsXII picked up their game on the hour mark and the attacking duo of captain Shahril Ishak and Casmir posed many problems for the Kelantan defence but were unable to test goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi.
His counterpart Izwan Mahmud was by far the busier of the two custodians. The youngster pulled off several saves to deny Kelantan’s attackers and his monster goal-kicks were the main source of inspiration for the LionsXII forwards.
But his resilience was finally broken in the 80th minute when he was harshly judged to have fouled Mohammad Ghaddar in the penalty area. Television replays showed that it was a poor decision by the referee as contact between the two was minimal.
The striker scored the resulting penalty to put the defending champions 2-1 up, much to the anger of the fans in the Jalan Besar Stadium.
But Kelantan coach Peter Butler felt the penalty was fair. “I think he (Izwan Mahmud) made contact, and if you make contact you’re in danger of giving away a penalty. Both the referee and his assistant has no hesitation.”
He was also full of praise for the Lions XII fans and players. “I thought the home crowd was fantastic,” he said.
“I’m really pleased to be here tonight, the atmosphere is great. I hope the fans will keep coming back.
“Agu Casmir was a real handful. The big lad at the back (Bhaihakki Khaizan) also played very well.”
Despite the defeat, LionsXII coach Sundram was optimistic about his team’s chances in the upcoming games.
“It was a good atmosphere to kick start the season,” he said. “Unfortunately we lost but it’s a learning lesson for us because it’s a marathon and we will try to push as much as possible to the finish.
“Baihakki and Safuwan (Baharuddin) held the defence very well. They were winning headers and running all over the pitch.
“It’s great seeing these boys develop into fine centre-backs.”
The LionsXII may have started the season on a losing note, but judging by their performance tonight, the future looks bright.