2018 World Cup Qualifiers| National Stadium, Singapore Sports Hub | Thursday, September 8 | 8pm
As must-win clash for the Lions.
Four points from three away games – certainly not a bad way to kick-start the joint World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers for Singapore.
A 4-0 thrashing of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and a surprise 0-0 draw against Japan in Saitama briefly put them top of Group E, before a 1-0 defeat against Syria in Muscat, Oman brought them tumbling back down to earth.
Yet they can keep their heads high after putting up a valiant performance against the Syrians. If not for a momentary lapse of concentration in defence and some wasteful finishing, they could have gone home with at least a draw, if not more.
The equation still looks healthy for the Lions as they currently occupy third spot in Group E, three points off Japan and five points behind leaders Syria. With a run of four home games (two in October, two in November) to come at their majestic Sports Hub, they still have every chance to push inside the top two and achieve direct qualification into the 2019 Asian Cup.
Just for those who are still confused or unsure, the eight group winners and the four best group runners-up will advance to the third round of World Cup qualification as well as qualify for the Asian Cup.
The next 16 highest-ranked teams (the remaining four group runners-up, the eight third-placed teams and the four best group fourth-placed teams) will then advance directly to the third round of Asian Cup qualification.
Meanwhile the remaining 12 teams enter the play-off round to contest the remaining eight spots in the third round of Asian Cup qualification (yes we know, still sounds confusing…).
Standing in the Lions’ way next is Afghanistan, a country where football is slowly beginning to take off.
- Syria 1-0 Singapore (WCQ)
- Qatar 4-0 Singapore (Friendly)
- Japan 0-0 Singapore (WCQ)
- Cambodia 0-4 Singapore (WCQ)
- Singapore 5-1 Brunei (Friendly)
- Afghanistan 0-6 Japan (WCQ)
- Thailand 2-0 Afghanistan (Friendly)
- Cambodia 0-1 Afghanistan (WCQ)
- Afghanistan 0-6 Syria (WCQ)
- Bangladesh 1-1 Afghanistan (Friendly)
After earning their first-ever qualifying point with a 1-1 draw against Palestine in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, they went on to beat India 2-0 to lift the 2013 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship and claim fourth place in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. On the domestic front, the Afghan Premier League was formed in 2012 and features eight clubs.
The war-ravaged nation continued its rise with a historic 1-0 win against Cambodia back in June, a result which was sandwiched between 6-0 losses to Syria and Japan. Thus they find themselves currently fourth in Group E with three points, just one behind Singapore.
Coming in as underdogs, the team known as the ‘Lions of Khorasan’ will surely fight tooth and nail in a bid to bring happiness to their people back home. It will be interesting to see what kind of fight they put up against the Singapore Lions.
Singapore will have to cope without the services of arguably their two best players in Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin due to suspensions.
Thus expect Zulfahmi Arifin to pair up with Izzdin Shafiq in the middle of the park, while captain Shahril Ishak looks like the favourite to reprise the No.10 role, which he had played so effectively over the last few years, just behind lone forward Khairul Amri.
Otherwise coach Bernd Stange is likely to stick to his trusted back five, with Baihakki Khaizan and Madhu Mohana forming the screen in front of goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, with Nazrul Nazari and Shaiful Esah in the full-back positions.
New boy Christopher van Huizen is also champing at the bit to make his international bow as he jostles it out with the likes of Faris Ramli and Hafiz Sujad to start on the flanks.
Meanwhile Afghanistan have named a youthful-looking squad for this game, the oldest being captain Djelaludin Sharityar at 32 and the rest all below 30. The future seems bright, with more than half of them under the age of 25.
The majority are currently plying their trade in Europe, with 10 based in Germany alone. Defender Zamir Daudi and midfielder Abassin Alikhil plays in the fifth tier with Viktoria Aschaffenburg, while Mustafa Zazai – who scored the winner against Cambodia in June – plays in the Bundesliga’s second tier with St Pauli.
Their main threats up-front will come from the dangerous duo of Norlla Amiri and Faysal Shayesteh. The former, who plays for Trelleborgs FF in the Swedish second tier, possesses a bag of tricks.
Shayesteh, currently with Songkhla United in the Thai second tier, has three goals in 11 international appearances and is capable of taking a mean freekick.
Player to Watch: Shahril Ishak
Not an automatic starter these days, captain Shahril will surely have a point to prove this time round.
In line to start in place of Safuwan either in the middle of the park or in the No.10 role for his 125th cap, the 31-year-old’s leadership and playmaking abilities will be crucial to unlocking the Afghani backline, led by the experienced Sharityar.
Singapore boss Bernd Stange has been rewarded for the Lions’ recent performances, with his contract extended by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) till the end of the qualifying campaign.
Over the past week, the 67-year-old German has been calling for fans to turn up in full force at the National Stadium to be the 12th man and it remains to be seen if his pleas will be answered.
Afghanistan counterpart Slaven Skeledzic has been a favourite with fans and players alike since taking over the post in February, bringing to the table his experience of coaching the youth teams of famed German clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover 96.
Sharityar has been impressed by the impact the 43-year-old has made so far.
"Things have been getting better since his appointment,” he told FIFA.com. “He is a professional manager with plenty of experience. He has instilled his philosophy into the team and we have learned how to maintain our control and play beautiful football."
Facts and Figures
- The sides are separated by seven places in the FIFA rankings – Singapore are ranked 157th, while Afghanistan are ranked 150th.
- Singapore have won just once out of three games at their revamped National Stadium at the Sports Hub, via a 4-2 win against Myanmar in the 2014 Suzuki Cup.
- Singapore have not scored in the last 305 minutes of international football, with the last coming via Fazrul Nawaz in the 4-0 thrashing of Cambodia in early June.
FFT.com Editor Zee Ko: Singapore 5-0. The visitors will surely be no match for a highly motivated Singapore on home soil.
Kenneth Tan: Singapore to nick it 2-1. The Afghans are tricky opponents, but these are the kind of games which Singapore needs to win in order to stay on course for qualification.
Yahoo Sports’ Teng Kiat: 2-0 to Singapore. Afghanistan won't roll over, but the Lions should have enough in the tank to triumph even without Safuwan and Hariss.
VoxSports’ Nigel Chin: Singapore 1-0. The loss of Safuwan and Hariss will hit Singapore hard in midfield, but ultimately the hosts will carve out a narrow win on home soil.
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