Singapore coach Bernd Stange seemed determined to keep spirits up after the loss to Syria on Tuesday but something's not quite right, explains FFT editor Zee Ko.
Syria looked a class above for most of the contest, as Madhu Mohana's red card made a hard task even more difficult.
While plenty of blame was dished out after the match – the quality of the S.League, the small pool of available talent and the young average age of the team – the coach said his players were not to be blamed after they gave it their all.
So what went wrong on the night? Plenty, apparently...
Overrun and outfoxed
Stange declared his team selection against Syria "an excellent decision that worked today, although it was very risky". Yet the German coach's decision to start Safuwan Baharudin up front instead of recognised options like Sahil Suhaimi and Fazrul Nawaz did not pay dividends.
Safuwan is a player of many qualities, with his strength and aerial prowess meaning that he can function as a makeshift striker. However, with Singapore on the back foot for most of the opening exchanges and not in possession of the ball, his talents went to waste.
It was significant that his best two moments on the ball came early when he picked up possession near the halfway line before trying to drive upfield past his markers.
More often than not, there was a real disconnect between Singapore's attack and defence. It wasn't surprising, given we'd seen similar signs against Japan just last week. But while the Syrians did offer Singapore more space than the hard-pressing Samurai Blue, the Lions often found a lack of passing options whenever they gained possession of the ball. Safuwan was usually isolated out front, with Hafiz Sujad and Chris van Huizen wide on either side.
While Hariss Harun, Izzdin Shafiq and Zulfahmi Arifin were the midfield three on the night, they were rarely in positions to link the play and launch counter-attacks. Syrian coach Fajr Ebrahim had set his team up in an adventurous 4-3-3 formation, with the lethal Omar Khribin the point of the spear. Whenever the Eagles from Damascus attacked, Khribin would be supported by no less than three or four teammates, flooding the penalty box with targets while their flying wingers made good progress.
Singapore's fullbacks Shakir Hamzah and Nazrul Nazari were struggling at this point, unable to stop crosses being pumped at will into the box. While the LionsXII teammates have plenty of recovery speed, they looked jaded after their exertions against Japan. Syria's Mahmoud Al Mawas in particular found plenty of joy down the right wing, repeatedly beating his man and lofting balls into the danger areas. Baihakki Khaizan and Madhu Mohana were doing their best to clear the danger with all these Syrian attackers swarming around, but it was only a matter of time before the dam broke.
And so it proved in the 20th minute as Nadim Sabagh whipped yet another cross into the box from the left wing with three targets ready to pounce. Izwan Mahbud missed the punch, the ball was knocked back across goal and a criminally unmarked Khribin powered home a header to open the scoring.
Syria's attacking play meant that Singapore's midfielders had to once again track back to help in defence, leaving huge gaps in midfield. There was very little Safuwan could do other than come deep to get the ball himself or hope someone would knock it long. Possession and territory was ceded to the Syrians.
With the benefit of foresight, one wonders if the speedy Sahil would have been a better option in the lone striker's role, allowing Safuwan to replace Zulfahmi in midfield. And while the overworked Nazrul and Shakir struggled, Stange left two fresh players in Shaiful Esah and Faritz Hameed on the bench. The duo was thrown on in the second half and it was no surprise that the Lions' play improved significantly thereafter. The defence visibly steadied with Faritz's introduction, with the right-back also involved in some of Singapore's more promising attacking moves.
The coach's reasoning that Nazrul and Shakir were LionsXII first-teamers held little weight, given Faritz only returned to full fitness in the second half of the Malaysian Super League season, while veteran Shaiful is an integral part of the title-chasing Tampines Rovers team with more than 40 Singapore caps to his name. With such quality left in reserve, it appears a tactical mistake was made in sticking with two tired full-backs.
— david Lee (@davidLeeTNP) November 17, 2015
While Singapore almost gained a scarcely-deserved point (in terms of performance, rather than endeavour in which the Lions could not be faulted), Syria ultimately sealed the deal with a late winner from Khribin. The Lions had looked threatening going forward in the closing minutes, with Hariss in particular driving Singapore forward. The equaliser came thanks to the sustained pressure, with a blatant superman punch from Alaa Al Shbli denying Shakir a clear header.
Safuwan strode forward confidently to fire home the penalty to send the home fans into ecstasy. However, with Singapore needing a win to stay in World Cup contention, the Lions inexplicably went back to defending once again. The initiative was handed to Syria with more than five minutes left on the clock, including injury time, and they did not need a second invitation. It's one thing to lose a close game, it's another thing entirely to sit back and try to defend a draw that would earn the Lions nothing other than a well-done pat on the back. That it did not work only added insult to injury.
Still on track
The drama didn't stop after the final whistle though, with Stange holding court in front of the local media in an animated press conference.
Besides praising his team for "giving 100 per cent and everything I wanted", the 67-year-old also reiterated that the Lions were on track for Asian Cup qualification.
We've heard that last line so many times now that it's starting to sound like a broken tape recorder. What would it take for the Lions to miss out on Asian Cup qualification though?
Turns out that the tired phrase is no more than Stange's ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. A closer look at the joint World Cup/Asian Cup qualifying process reveals that the only way to drop out of contention at the moment is ... to be disqualified.
Don't worry, Lions fans! Stange's target is to finish above Cambodia & Afghanistan. We remain on track. #SINvsSYR
— ST Sports Desk (@STsportsdesk) November 17, 2015
In a terribly convoluted qualification process, the eight group winners and four best runners-up will proceed directly into the Asian Cup tournament.
The next 16 highest ranked teams will enter the third qualifying round, while the bottom 12 teams will fight it out in the playoffs for eight more spots to join the previous 16.
Indonesia are currently out of the running thanks to their football association being banned by FIFA, with Kuwait possibly joining them. Everyone else is still in contention to qualify for the Asian Cup till the end of these group qualifiers, with potentially only two of the 40 teams that started this round of matches back in June being dumped out in the playoffs.
In simple terms, Singapore could finish rock bottom of their group and still "be on track for the Asian Cup".
Little wonder then that Stange is now talking about having another year to prepare for the Asian Cup third qualification round (and only if the Lions do keep Afghanistan at bay in March).
"We still have a chance and I need [the media's] support to be positive and praise the players for what they did today," he said while jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. "We have one-and-a-half years to be ready and this team will be older [when the time comes]."
Admirable optimism or plain delusion? You decide.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo