2018 World Cup Qualifiers| Takhti Stadium| Tues 29 Mar | 3pm AST (7.30pm SGT)
- Japan 5-0 Afghanistan (WCQ)
- India 2-1 (AET) Afghanistan (SAFF)
- Afghanistan 5-0 Sri Lanka (SAFF)
- Afghanistan 4-1 Maldives (SAFF)
- Bhutan 0-3 Afghanistan (SAFF)
- Singapore 2-1 Myanmar (Friendly)
- Singapore 1-2 Syria (WCQ)
- Singapore 0-3 Japan (WCQ)
- Singapore 2-1 Cambodia (WCQ)
- Singapore 1-0 Afghanistan (WCQ)
Bernd Stange’s swansong as Singapore coach.
This is it. After 34 official matches and 35 months at the helm, Stange will bow out as Singapore coach after his last match in Tehran, Iran.
It has been a period in which many local fans grew increasingly disillusioned, with the smooth-talking German failing to deliver the tiki-taka style of football he promised when he succeeded the popular Raddy Avramovic in May 2013.
However, some credit should be given to Stange for putting the Lions on the right track to qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup finals by leading them into the final qualification round – something which other Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia, Myanmar and Philippines failed to achieve.
That was done so by achieving 10 points in seven matches, which ensured they sealed third spot in Group E – rendering this final match as a dead rubber in the process.
There is still everything to play for though, with the players keen to use every opportunity to impress and stake strong claims for inclusion into the squad for the AFF Suzuki Cup at the end of 2016.
Flattering to deceive in the 2-1 friendly win against Myanmar last Thursday, a much better performance is expected from Stange’s charges.
Their opponents Afghanistan may have come off a 5-0 drubbing against Japan in Saitama five nights ago, but they did well to keep the Samurai Blue at bay until Shinji Okazaki’s superb goal that broke the deadlock just before half time.
That defeat killed off their hopes of progressing into the final round of Asian Cup qualification, but that should nothing to dent the confidence of the war-ravaged nation, who have made giant strides over the past few years in international football.
After earning their first-ever qualifying point with a 1-1 draw against Palestine in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, the Lions of Khorasan have already gone one better in this joint 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers by attaining their first wins at this level – defeating Cambodia 1-0 in Phnom Penh and 3-0 in Tehran.
They also played Singapore off the park in the earlier meeting at the National Stadium last October, with the home side escaping with a somewhat fortuitous 1-0 win.
A few key players will be missing for Singapore.
Left-back Shaiful Esah and winger Faris Ramli has been left at home to nurse their injuries, while midfield playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman did not travel due to the birth of his second child.
Otherwise, the likes of Izwan Mahbud, Baihakki Khaizan and Izzdin Shafiq are well rested after not seeing game time against Myanmar and should probably figure in the starting eleven.
It will be interesting to see who Stange opts for upfront, with both Khairul Nizam and Fazrul Nawaz doing well the last time out.
The former’s industry and determination forced the opening for Shahril Ishak’s opener while the latter came off the bench to fire home the winner via a well-cushioned volley.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan have called up the bulk of the squad that finished runners-up in the SAFF Championship which was played from 23 December 2015 to 3 January 2016.
It is a youthful-looking selection with the oldest player being 30-year-old midfielder Ahmad Hatifi. 18 out of the 24 remaining players are 25 years or below – including the 19-year-old defensive duo of Abdullah Abdalli and Qesmat Ahmadi.
Up to 14 of them are currently playing in Europe, with eight based in Germany alone – such as midfielder Abassin Alikhil who plays in the German fifth tier with Viktoria Aschaffenburg.
They have decent attacking threats in the form of Norlla Amiri and captain Faysal Shayesteh.
The former, who plays for Trelleborgs FF in the Swedish second tier, is a geniunely tricky customer. The latter plays for Songkhla United in the Thai second tier and has seven goals in 18 international appearances, while his free-kick taking abilities are underestimated by opponents to their peril.
Another forward to watch out for is 29-year-old Khaibar Amani, who has five goals in nine international appearances – four of those coming in the SAFF Championship that saw him land the tournament’s Golden Boot.
Key Battle: Ovays Azizi vs Fazrul Nawaz
With Khairul Amri still out injured, Singapore is crying out for a true centre-forward to lead the line, with Fazrul showing the best credentials so far.
The 30-year-old came off the bench to deliver the winner in the 2-1 qualifying win against Cambodia last October and repeated the trick against Myanmar five nights ago.
It may not be easy against Azizi though, with the Afghan No. 1 keeping four clean sheets in his last seven outings.
It will be the battle between two tacticians who are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Singapore boss Bernd Stange is set to step down after this match, with the 68-year-old German calling time on his three-year stint in charge of the Lions.
On the other hand, Afghanistan counterpart Petar Segrt is only four months into his new job after replacing Slaven Skeledzic last November.
The 49-year-old Croatian-born German made use of his previous experience coaching youth teams in Germany as he inspired the Lions of Khorasan to a 3-0 win against Cambodia in his first game in charge.
Facts and Figures
- Both sides are separated by three places in the FIFA rankings – Singapore are ranked 148th, while Afghanistan are ranked 151st.
- Singapore has lost just once in three away games in this joint World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying campaign – a 1-0 defeat to Syria in Muscat, Oman last September.
- In contrast, Afghanistan has won just once in three home matches – a 3-0 thrashing of Cambodia in Segrt’s first game in charge.
- Singapore’s top scorer in this campaign is Safuwan Baharudin (three goals), while Afghanistan’s top scorers are Norlla Amiri and Mustafa Zazai (two apiece).
A 1-1 draw. Singapore will hope to end their campaign on a winning note, but the Afghans may not be that easy to break down.