It was truly a comeback to saviour.
The LionsXII looked dead in the water after first-half strikes from Argentinian duo Luciano Figueroa and Pablo Aimar had given Johor Darul Takzim a commanding 2-0 lead at the break.
But two goals in four minutes after the break turned the tie completely on its head, as Khairul Amri’s second goal in as many games and Hafiz Sujad’s tap-in earned the visitors a deserved draw at the Tan Sri Dato' Hj Hassan Yunos Stadium on Tuesday evening.
Such was the turnaround that the LionsXII could have even snatched a late winner after Safuwan Baharudin was put through one-on-one with goalkeeper Norazlan Razali, but the defender-turned-striker’s shot was well saved. The reigning Malaysia Super League champions also had a strong penalty claim that was dismissed after Faris Ramli fell right on the edge of the penalty box in added time.
The manner in which the LionsXII dragged themselves from the realms of defeat to one where they were considered unlucky not to have run away with all three points is highly admirable.
With a young team whose average age is only 22.5 years, a new coach in Fandi Ahmad, and the weight of expectation on the team’s shoulders after last season’s title triumph, few would have expected them to walk away from Larkin with even a point.
There was no denying that Johor were the better team in the opening hour of the match, with key architect Aimar a sight to behold as he pulled the strings in the middle of the park. The LionsXII simply could not handle the former Valencia and Benefica man.
Such was the superiority of the home side that the stadium turned into a carnival-like atmosphere with the boisterous Southern Tigers fans well behind their dominant team, expecting more goals to come.
But the LionsXII kept their belief despite the odds stacked against them and the unthinkable happened - unsurprisingly - the very moment Aimar was substituted.
Barely seconds after leaving the pitch, the playmaker’s departure galvanised the visitors and they instantly pulled a goal back after Madhu Mohana’s long throw-in was met by Amri’s head.
The turnaround was complete just three minutes later as the LionsXII exploited the hosts’ shell-shocked defense, with Hafiz poking in from close range after Safuwan’s initial attempt was saved.
The fightback would have surprised some, but the LionsXII did show glimpses of their fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude in the 2-1 win against Selangor FA last Saturday after Amri headed in the winner in the dying seconds.
The team might have lost their three best players last season with Baihakki Khaizan, Hariss Harun and Shahril Ishak all moving across the causeway, but they have made up for their lack of star power with determination of the highest order.
Fandi, who returned to his former club for the first time since leaving midway last season, has to be given credit for sticking to his attacking principles and believing in his players even when no one else would have given them any whisker of hope.
He showed them motivational videos prior to the game to psych the boys, and it seemed to do the trick. His bold move to gradually push Safuwan up the field also paid dividends as the Goal Singapore Player of the Year troubled the Johor defence in a more advanced position.
Expectations for the LionsXII might not be as high after all the changes, but based on this performance, don’t be surprised to see them in the thick of things near the top of the table at the end of the season.