FFT's Oliver Chan was at Jalan Besar Stadium as Singapore U23s got off to a winning start against the Philippines U23...
On a night when his more illustrious teammates were fluffing their lines, Sheikh Abdul Hadi came up with the goods when it mattered. The central defender's timed his leap to perfection, beating his marker to Safirul Sulaiman's free kick and arrowing his header past a stranded Florencio Badelic Jr. and into the back of the Philippines net. Scoring right before the half also relieved some of the pressure on a frustrated Singapore team which had struggled to convert their chances all night.
Better luck next time
One has to wonder whether Singapore is best served with Sahil Suhaimi not starting games. The striker has been at his best as an impact substitute for the LionsXII this season, scoring five goals off the bench and looking dangerous whenever he takes on tiring defenders. Besides scoring on debut against PDRM in the team's opening fixture as a second-half substitute, the 22-year-old has been extremely effective during the LionsXII's Malaysia FA Cup campaign, being brought on to notch match-winning braces against PB Melayu Kedah and in the final against an exhausted Terengganu defence.
In fact, the striker has only started two games for the LionsXII all season and was hauled off around the hour mark on both occasions. Sahil's aggression and pace is a handy weapon to have against leaden legs, as LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad has found out this year. Will Aide choose to start Irfan Fandi and hand a return to Shahfiq Ghani while keeping Sahil in reserve against Myanmar? We will have to see.
Shakir Hamzah will be counting his lucky stars after escaping censure for tangling with Kennedy Uzoka. The full back was clumsily shoved out of bounds by his opponent, before lashing out with both feet. A startled Uzoka cocked his fist and stood over Shakir, only for the Singapore man to roll over and clutch his head. Referee Hiroyuki Kimura missed the initial incident and flashed a yellow card at the Filipino midfielder. Shakir could very well have been sent off for his rush of blood to the head, and will have to be more careful in future. It is on such incidents that games can turn.
The Philippines lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, with midfielder Arnel Amita pulled further back to act as a defensive shield in front of the back four. But it was defenders Neil Dorimon and Julian Mariano Clarino who were key, after they was given the task of keeping Irfan Fandi out. Singapore had originally started in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Shamil Sharif in the hole behind Sahil, but that wasn't really working and it wasn't long before Aide introduced the dangerous Irfan.
Dorimon and Clarino couldn't do much to prevent Irfan running with the ball, but they could prevent him from getting into dangerous areas. The central defenders were constantly showing Irfan the outside, forcing the Singaporean striker out wide where he could not shoot on goal. This in turn meant that Irfan had to try to set up goals for Sahil and Faris, only to see the duo spurn their chances.
Wayward shooting and an inability to fashion clear-cut chances meant the Young Lions made their task more difficult than it had to be.
Singapore's performance against a weakened Philippines side simply wasn't good enough. While it was enough to grab all three points and coach Aide was correct to focus on the positives, similar performances against the likes of Myanmar and Indonesia will not bode well. The potential is there, but the Young Lions need to find their groove quickly if they are to make the knockout stages. A SEA Games medal is not out of the question, but they won't earn one playing like they did on Monday night.
Photo: Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee/ Action Images via Reuters