JOHOR BAHRU: Another match, another win, and the growing stature of the LionsXII in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) is clear for all to see.
The win by a solitary goal over Johor FC on Saturday night at the Pasir Gudang Stadium, carved out against a backdrop of some desperate defending and hostile reaction from the home fans, has further consolidated the LionsXII's position at the top of the league.
Thirty points from nine wins in 14 matches has given the team the confidence and the psychological boost needed as they look ahead to the remaining matches of the season.
With defending champions Kelantan dropping points after a 1-1 draw away in Sarawak, and Terengganu crashing to an astonishing 6-1 defeat against Selangor, Lady Luck was certainly smiling on the Singapore outfit on Saturday night.
Still, it was sheer hard work against Johor and things were made more difficult by the defensive blanket rolled out by the hosts, especially in the first half, in their attempt to throw the LionsXII off balance.
That worked a treat until the 42nd minute when skipper Shahril Ishak headed down a long cross from Irwan Shah into the path of Khairul Nizam.
The 20-year-old striker still had plenty to do but he stood his ground amid four Johor defenders and was able to swivel around to slide home the goal.
Johor's over-reliance on their two South American imports, Arthur Henrique and Fernando Augusto, did not bring about the dividends coach K. Devan had hoped for.
The home side were also guilty of giving the ball away far too easily, putting the pressure back on their own defence instead.
For the Lions, the performance of Shahril and Khairul made all the difference on a night when coach V. Sundramoorthy knew Johor were not going to take things lying down.
Lying 12th in the 14-team league, the Johor management have reportedly sent warning letters to those whom they think have not performed up to scratch.
But the LionsXII were not to be cowed, surviving some scathing tackles and a hostile crowd which succeeded in landing a plastic bottle on Shahril's head towards the end of the match. Isa Halim was also on the receiving end of a vicious shot from a Johor player that hit him smack on the face.
"It was a physical game tonight. No doubts about that. But as I said, that's expected," said Sundram.
"The referee did well to control the tempo of the match and we are thankful for that. Performance wise, I think people will take us seriously now. We have proved we have the maturity and we are prepare to work hard against whatever odds." - TODAY