2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers | Saitama Stadium 2002 | Tue 16 June | 6.30pm
David vs Goliath.
11th June 2015 could go down as a watershed moment in Singapore football, whichever way you choose to see it.
As the Under-23 team floundered and were prematurely knocked out of the Southeast Asian Games in the group stages, Singapore's seniors kicked off the joint 2018 FIFA World Cup round two Qualifiers and 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in emphatic fashion, knocking in four goals without reply away against Cambodia.
It might still be too early to say that this signals a new dawn for the Lions, who are recovering from last November’s early exit from the AFF Suzuki Cup. However, early signs of revival do look seem to be taking shape.
The contest was well and truly over within the first 35 minutes in Phnom Penh. Singapore's display sets them up nicely for what will be their toughest game in Group E – away to Japan in Saitama.
- Cambodia 0-4 Singapore (WCQ)
- Singapore 5-1 Brunei (Friendly)
- Bangladesh 1-2 Singapore (Friendly)
- Singapore 2-2 Guam (Friendly)
- Thailand 2-0 Singapore (Friendly)
Like the Lions, the Samurai Blue are rebuilding after their failure to defend their AFC Asian Cup crown back in January. Vahid Halilhodzic has been installed at the helm in place of Javier Aguirre, with the new boss presiding over three wins out of three – 2-0 against Tunisia and 5-1 against Uzbekistan in March, before a 4-0 thrashing of Iraq in Yokohama five days ago.
Their win against the 2007 Asian Cup champions is as impressive as it gets. Japan’s passing had been fluid and the finishing, deadly. The floodgates were opened on five minutes as Gaku Shibasaki put through a defence-splitting pass for Keisuke Honda to score, before centre-back Tomoaki Makino bundled home Shinji Kagawa’s corner four minutes latter.
Coming off such a comprehensive result, they will surely be going in this game full of confidence.
- Japan 4-0 Iraq (Friendly)
- Japan 5-1 Uzbekistan (Friendly)
- Japan 2-0 Tunisia (Friendly)
- Japan 1-1 (4-5 pen) UAE (AFC Asian Cup)
- Japan 2-0 Jordan (AFC Asian Cup)
Barring any last-minute injury mishaps, Singapore fans will see roughly the same line-up which started the last time out against Cambodia, which could feature a total of eight representatives from the LionsXII.
Izwan Mahbud will take the gloves, with Nazrul Nazari, Madhu Mohana, Zulfahmi Arifin and Shaiful Esah right in front. Izzdin Shafiq and Hariss Harun will sit in midfield, although Safuwan Baharudin's availability to start in the free role he has impressed in to date is uncertain owing to personal reasons. Fazrul Nawaz and Hafiz Sujad will provide the width for main man Khairul Amri to produce the goods.
It could be a baptism of fire for them against a strong Japan side, which boasts 13 Europe-based players in the squad including the likes of Kagawa and Honda.
Given how they lined up and fared against Iraq, fans should expect no surprises from Halihodzic’s starting XI on Tuesday evening. Eiji Kawashima will start in goal, with Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Tomoaki Makino and Yuto Nagatomo forming the back-four. Captain Makoto Hasebe will sit in midfield with Gaku Shibasaki to protect a fearsome offence of Takashi Usami forming a trident behind lone striker Shinji Okazaki.
Player to Watch: Madhu Mohana
It’s amazing how much a year’s difference can make.
Back in 2014, Madhu was still struggling to lock down a first-team spot at club level and eventually missed out on making Singapore’s final squad for the AFF Suzuki Cup squad last November.
Fast forward to 2015 and the 24-year-old is one of the first names on Fandi Ahmad’s LionsXII team sheet. The stopper has featured in 16 out of their last 17 games in all competitions and only missed one due to suspension while forming a reliable defensive pairing together with Zulfahmi at the back.
Madhu is likely to be given the nod to reprise his partnership with his club-mate for Singapore again. How he progresses from stifling the likes of Dickson Nwakaeme and Paulo Rangel in the Malaysian Super League doing so against established players like Kagawa and Okazaki will form one of the key talking points of the game.
The coaching battle
Japan’s tie with Singapore will feature a battle of wits between two coaches who have amassed a wealth of experience coaching abroad.
Singapore coach Bernd Stange led teams like East Germany, Oman, Iraq and Belarus in a career spanning 40 years before taking up his Lions post just over two years ago.
Japanese counterpart Vahid Halilhodzic on the other hand had experience leading French Ligue 1 sides like Lille, Rennes and current champions Paris Saint-Germain back in the early 2000. The Bosnian boss then expanded his horizons, leading Ivory Coast to the 2010 World Cup before helming Algeria at Brazil 2014.
Last five meetings
- Japan 1-0 Singapore (Nov’ 14)
- Singapore 1-2 Japan (Mar’ 14)
- Singapore 0-3 Japan (Feb’ 00)
- Japan 5-0 Singapore (May’ 85)
- Singapore 1-3 Japan (Feb’ 85)
The 63-year-old will surely be looking to enjoy a longer stint in charge of the Samurai Blue than predecessor Aguirre, who took charge of just 10 games.
Facts and Figures
- Japan have enjoyed the upper hand in the head-to-head. The Asian giants have won 18, drawn once and lost just three in 22 encounters.
- The last time both sides met was during the 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifiers back in November 2004. Keji Tamada’s goal was enough to hand victory to Japan when the two sides clashed at Saitama Stadium 2002 - the same venue where both sides lock horns again on Tuesday evening.
- Both sides are separated by 102 places in the FIFA rankings - Singapore are ranked 154th, while Japan are placed at 52. This ensures they are the second highest-ranked Asian team, behind Iran at 41.
FFT.com Editor Zee Ko: 4-0 to Japan. There's no easy way of saying this but Singapore will need a miracle to get anything from this game with the Samurai Blue having recalled their big guns.
Gary Koh: Japan 5 Singapore 0. Vahid Halilhodzic likes his men to play attacking football and they will want to impress on home soil. Racking up a good goal difference will be extra motivation. Not much of a chance for Singapore under their coach .
Kenneth Tan: Japan 3 Singapore 1. While the Lions looked good value for money in their 4-0 trumping of Cambodia, the Japanese should still be a class above Southeast Asian teams to say the least. I fancy their chances of grabbing a goal though!