KUANTAN - There was a spring in the step of Afiq Yunos as he stepped onto the tarmac at the Sultan Ahmad Shah Airport yesterday - and for good reason.
He has, after all, been waiting two years to make his competitive debut in a LionsXII shirt.
"I'm really excited," said the former Courts Young Lions defender who was ineligible to join the team for the past two years owing to national-service commitments.
"But I'm also feeling a bit of pressure."
The reason is that the 23-year-old is coming in to replace Baihakki Khaizan at the heart of a backline that was the stingiest in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) last season.
With just 15 goals conceded in 22 outings, the LionsXII clinched last year's title with one game to spare.
That stellar defensive record is one that new coach Fandi Ahmad hopes will continue, even as he looks to build a more attack-minded side in his first year in charge.
"To win matches, you have to be solid in defence," the former national captain said ahead of this evening's season-opener against Malaysia Cup holders Pahang at the Darul Makmur Stadium in Kuantan.
"And that has always been this team's forte."
Nevertheless, the departure of Baihakki - the reigning Football Association of Malaysia's Defender of the Year - for big-spending Johor Darul Takzim has left a potential gaping hole in the LionsXII defence.
"Baihakki brought experience and leadership qualities, all of which will be missed," goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud pointed out.
"But I think we have a more than capable replacement."
Afiq may be a newcomer to the squad, but he is by no means an unfamiliar face.
He and central defensive partner Safuwan Baharudin played together regularly for the Young Lions from 2009 to 2011, before the latter left to join the newly formed LionsXII.
With Izwan in goal, the duo will be reprising the defensive spine at last month's SEA Games, where Singapore clinched a bronze medal.