There could not be a greater contrast between the two training sessions at the Perak Stadium yesterday, ahead of tonight’s Malaysian Super League clash between the hosts and the LionsXII. Barely into their stride just 45 minutes into their session, the hosts – also known as the Seladang – were sent scurrying as the skies opened.
Retreating from the torrential rain and ominous flashes of lightning, Perak coach Norizan Bakar was left with the difficult choice of calling his boys back for another session this morning to iron out his formation, an unusual decision at best.
Facing the large contingent of Singapore media – 12 at last count – Norizan chose to focus on his team and not the opposition, trundling out the old chestnut “my team is taking it one match at a time”.
His assistant manager, Ahmad Shahrul Azhar, gave me further insight into the Seladang that were topping the MSL table until their 2-0 loss last Saturday away to the T-Team. Asked if his team is as strong as their table position suggests, Ahmad Shahrul was quick to point out his team is only in its second year of transition.
“We’ve been through bad times when finances were uncertain and the fans deserted us,” he said. “It’s a brand new management now, committed to rebuilding the team as the pride of the Perak state. And the fans are starting to come back, and we expect a good crowd for home matches – especially when Singapore comes visiting.”
“I’m not entirely sure if the team is the best in the league but we’ve taken our chances against teams that are going through rough patches, which is why we’re up there on the table. You can be sure the team’s fired up to play the LionsXII, after all, we feel we are carrying the hopes of the state as well as the pride of the nation.”
At the stadium, the deluge quickly gave way to a light drizzle as the LionsXII arrived, and the players sat in the stands for half an hour before the Singapore coaching staff deemed it safe for the boys to pull on their boots and get on to the field.
LionsXII head coach V Sundramoorthy and his assistant Kadir Yahaya quickly went to work with the 11 outfield players who arrived with the main party. Following a quick warm-up, the players settled into several light-hearted sessions of one-touch football, where a circle of players made passes to deny two chasers. Deceptive in its simplicity, the drill looked to have served two purposes – it left the players in high spirits, and it also familiarised them with the pitch which was sodden and soggy in places. That could come useful in tonight’s match, when water on the pitch would hinder the roll of the ball and prove disruptive for the players. That’s potential for defensive mistakes that could well result in goal-scoring opportunities for the Lions.
With Isa Halim handed the late yellow card last Saturday against Negeri Sembilan – and it was for a handball in the box despite Negeri scoring a goal from the move – the LionsXII would need a player to step up into the midfield anchorman role. That should fall on the reliable shoulders of Hariss Harun who flew in this morning. Yasir Hanapi should also earn a spot in the starting line-up on the right flank, with skipper Shahril Ishak just on his inside, while the rest of the midfield remain unchanged.
And with Sufian Anuar retaining his lone-striker’s job, it looks like a defensive-minded 4-1-4-1 formation against Perak, and points to a low-scoring match ahead. Unless, of course, the hosts steal an early march and go on a rampage.
After last Saturday’s stirring win, Sundram and Kadir must have spent the past few days reining in the players and hoping they will not go out swaggering and come back whipped.
“It’s always a different game when you are playing away, and with a full stadium expected tomorrow, it’ll be a tough game so we must be focused and very disciplined,” Sundram cantioned.
It’s good to be back in Ipoh. I first came here in 1975 as a seven-year-old, attending the Malaysian National Schools Sports meet as a spectator. My dad was a school headmaster and an athletics coach and his 12-year-old charge came away with the Schoolgirl of the Year title after a two-gold and one-silver performance.
The stadium has been refurbished and can now seat 42,500. The food stalls around the stadium perimeter are already two decades old and are popular among Ipoh residents from late afternoon through evening. One stallholder told me that matchdays are well-attended, though she wished it would translate to more takings for her. It seems business does not pick up much despite the thousands of fans arriving.
“The fans will fill up the seats and there’ll be plenty of noise during matches,” she said, adding: “All the action is inside the stadium.”
That was all I needed to hear and I am looking forward to what I hope will be an action-packed and entertaining match.