Singapore has done well so far in Group E, averaging two points a game and sitting pretty in third. Bernd Stange’s side has definitely met the minimum expectations, so far gaining full points against the two lower-ranked two countries in the group – Cambodia and Afghanistan. Add a wholly unexpected draw against Japan in Saitama and an unfortunate defeat away against Syria, as it stands, the Lions of Southeast Asia still have some chance of sneaking into the runners-up spot, potentially finding a way as one of the four best runner-ups and into the third round of World Cup qualifying.
Going far in World Cup qualifying may seem a little too ambitious, but a spot in the 2019 Asian Cup is one that awaits the four best runner-ups as well. A first appearance since 1984 will certainly represent progress for the reign of the German coach thus far. But how can Singapore do it? Will they achieve a runner-up spot ahead of likely contender Syria?
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Besides the convincing victory away to Cambodia as well as the heroic point in Japan, Stange’s men have somehow lost their way in the other four qualifiers – whether at the start of or during the matches.
They looked so lacklustre against Syria, and was eventually punished after some poor defending from full-back Nazrul Nazari and lackadaisical marking from Baihakki Khaizan and Madhu Mohana. The failure to finish off numerous chances also cost the Lions, with veteran forward Khairul Amri the main culprit. In the two home ties against Afghanistan and then Cambodia, the Lions were given a rude awakening as to the real quality of these supposedly ‘lesser’ footballing nations.
Afghanistan were all over Singapore at the National Stadium, and should have been at least two up by half-time. The Afghan’s own inability to score coupled with some brilliant goalkeeping from Singapore custodian Izwan Mahbud provided the opportunity for Amri to make amends and head the game’s winning goal. Similarly against Cambodia, the Lions went two goals ahead – courtesy of Faris Ramli and then substitute Fazrul Nawaz, with Amri again the culprit, missing a penalty in between – before seemingly relaxing too much and allowing the Cambodians their first goal of the qualifying campaign.
Poor defending from full-back Shakir Hamzah afforded too much space for a right wing cross, before a tidy finish from the Cambodia midfielder Sos Suhana rounded up the slick move. Having been chasing for more goals, Singapore had to withdraw into their own half and hold out for the three points.
With the two fixtures at home to Japan and Syria, it is unlikely that the Lions will be any more complacent than they were in the last two home fixtures. However, Stange will have to remove any of such thoughts if his side is to gain anything against Japan, and what would be a key and necessary victory against Syria.
It’s as simple as that. Let’s face it. The likelihood of Singapore gaining anything at home to Japan is close to zilch. Stange will focus more on keeping the goal difference as low as possible. The key battle will be against the Syrians at the National Stadium, whereby the victor will be all but guaranteed a runner-up spot behind likely group winner Japan.
Should Singapore beat Syria, they will still have to count on the Japanese beating Syria in Japan – which should happen after Japan’s convincing 3-0 victory in the away leg. At the same time, the Lions will be in Afghanistan for their final group game, and they will have to go all out for a victory – one they are perfectly capable of, but can only happen if they give their all.
Make Use of Key Personnel
The personnel Stange picked from the off against Cambodia most recently was the right choice. Hardworking but ineffective forward-turned-right winger Fazrul Nawaz was sacrificed for the more offensive-minded Sahil Suhaimi, with young star Faris Ramli taking his spot on the opposite flank – both in support of the veteran Amri and Singapore’s in-form star Safuwan Baharudin.
This offensive strategy will be useful in kicking the Lions off against Syria at home and Afghanistan away, whereby Stange will hope an early goal or a goal in the first-half will help settle his side down, and provide a platform in which to play on the counter.
Against Japan though, Fazrul may be preferred for his defensive qualities, with either Sahil or Faris taking the opposite side. It wouldn’t be surprised if another defensive-minded player in Hafiz Sujad take up the left side of midfield, simply to shut up shop and hope for the best.
For all the remaining games, what will be key is the relationship between the two central midfielders as well as the two centre-backs. National team veterans Baihakki and Hariss will be likely be paired with newcomers Madhu and Izzdin Shafiq respectively. These four will have to continue to forge a strong understanding between them, ensuring the space between defence and midfield doesn’t come to wide. In particular, Hariss and Izzdin will need to work in tandem so as to stop the attacks of any oppositions – yes, even the Afghans pose a significant threat as seen recently.
If Stange can pull off another six points from the three remaining qualifiers, the German will have proven his worth and justified his contract extension. There’s a likelihood Singapore’s efforts will be futile as they might miss out on one of the four best runner-up spots, but these potential results could provide the momentum required for the Lions of Southeast Asia to emerge victorious in the third round of qualifiers for the 2019 Asian Cup and finally end more than 30 years wait to participate at a major international tournament.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Darren C