Cambodia U23 1 Singapore U23 3: Who did Sahil aim his celebration at?
Star performer: Safirul Sulaiman
In what was generally an unspectacular but efficient display by the Young Lions, it was Safirul who earns the plaudits with his key contributions that led to his side taking a two-goal advantage into half time.
What was more interesting to note was how he had an off-colour first half hour, failing to take charge of matters in midfield and seeing most of his passes go wayward. However, the hallmark of a great player is to rise after falling – something which Safirul truly showcased right before the break.
Taking charge of the free-kick after Sahil Suhaimi was brought down just outside the box, the Courts Young Lions man duly curled home an excellent effort beyond the reach of Cambodia keeper Um Sereyroth.
Safirul wasn’t exactly done either, as his lofted 30-yard pass a minute later left the Cambodian defence in sixes and sevens, allowing Faris Ramli the simplest task of nodding into an empty net.
It was truly mission accomplished in the second 45 minutes as the 22-year-old put in a good shift on the right side of midfield and even flew into a few tackles to deter any Cambodian ideas of a comeback.
Could do better: Shakir Hamzah
By contrast, Shakir was one of the players who fared slightly below-par in this game.
As one of the more experienced members of the squad, much more was expected from him in terms of leading from the back and producing the energetic displays down the flank so typical of his game over the years.
Perhaps leaving him leashed up instead of going forward to support Faris Ramli was a ploy devised by coach Aide Iskandar to curb the fast Cambodian attackers. Instead, the 22-year-old was instructed to swing several deep, early crosses to target man Irfan Fandi, but his most of his deliveries failed to find their target on most occasions.
Defensively, Shakir perhaps could have been tighter in his marking of Chinn Chhoeun, who managed to find enough space to cross into the box for Chan Vathanaka to score Cambodia’s only goal.
To compound matters, he picked up his second yellow card of the tournament which means he will be suspended for the crunch Group A game against the Indonesian U-23s.
Though the Young Lions ran out 3-1 winners on the night, things could have been very different if referee Ma Ning had spotted Shakir impeding Prak Mony Udom in the Singapore penalty area midway through the first half.
Video replays showed that the Singapore left-back had made contact with the Cambodian captain’s foot in a desperate attempt to stop the latter from going through on goal. The scores were still 0-0 at that time and one can’t help but wonder if the game would have taken on a different complexion, had a penalty been awarded…
Also, keen observers would have noticed that Sahil Suhaimi went straight to the King George’s Stand after his goal, holding a finger to his lips to signify that he had successfully silenced his critics.
After the game, the LionsXII star commented, “I heard that particular one voice that irritates me a lot. Of all the noise that I kept on hearing, that one is one which I don’t like, so, yeah, that [celebration] was for him.”
Sahil refused to reveal the identity of that particular person, but in any case, it seems now that his or her criticism had fired up the striker in a positive manner.
For the first time in the tournament, Aide decided to go with two strikers upfront, in Irfan and Sahil. It looked like the perfect ‘big-small’ forward partnership, yet the duo struggled to work in tandem in the first half.
The Young Lions failed to fashion many clear-cut chances in the first period as a result. With the 1.87m tall Irfan upfront, Aide had specially instructed his sides to whip in early crosses from deep but the resulting deliveries was well dealt with by the Cambodians’ three-man backline.
Deploying a 3-5-2 formation, the extra man in midfield helped as Sos Suhana played the ‘Makelele’ role to perfection in stifling the Young Lions’ attack. That forced Aide to switch things around halfway, moving Adam Swandi into the centre of the park while Safirul was shafted to the flanks.
Those changes had the desired effect as they duly scored two before half time and race into a commanding lead. Adding on, Aide was spot-on with his choice of substitutions, bringing on Ho Wai Loon and Amy Recha in the final half-hour.
It was, of course, no surprise that it was then Amy who played the defence-splitting pass for Sahil to score the crucial third goal. The duo ran their socks off to preserve the slim advantage before Sahil’s late strike relieved the pressure.
A victory like this surely polarizes opinion. The local faithful are bound to highlight the efficiency of the Young Lions attack – three goals scored, from three shots on target. Meanwhile, the focus of the doubters will centre on Singapore’s overall build-up play being scrappy, to say the least.
Adopting the middle ground provides a good view into both camps of thought. And though the Young Lions finally finding their clinical selves within bodes well, the fact most of the passages of play in the attacking third broke down is a potentially worrying sign.
Individually, a number of the players have yet to reach their full potential, so there is definitely still room for improvement to look forward to, going into the crucial final Group A game against the Indonesians.
Hopefully, Singapore peak at the right time, with the Cambodia win heralding good news that qualification to the semi-final is now firmly in their own hands.
All images: Stefanus Ian/FourFourTwo