Japan 0 Singapore 0: Heroic Lions hold Samurai Blue at bay
Izwan Mahbud is one of the five Singaporean players who FFT tips to break into the #FFTAsia50 one day. Click here to find out who else in Monday night's Singapore team stand a similar chance one day.
Japan peppered the Singapore goal over the 90 minutes but were constantly denied by the heroics of LionsXII keeper Izwan, who made 18 saves in total to deny the former Asian Cup champions a winning start to their joint 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
Both sides made a solitary change to their previous lineups, with Japan bringing in Kosuke Ota for Yuto Nagatomo at left-back while Singapore reinstated Baihakki Khaizan for Safuwan Baharudin, the latter leaving Japan earlier to attend to a personal matter.
Unsurprisingly, it was Japan who forced the early initiative as Izwan smothered Keisuke Honda’s 25-yard snapshot in the third minute.
The 24-year-old was further tested on two occasions shortly afterwards, tipping away a fierce Shinji Kagawa drive before parrying Makoto Hasebe’s shot from outside the area.
Kagawa then lashed off-target on two occasions before Singapore enjoyed a rare opportunity via Zulfahmi Arifin, though the latter was unable to keep his long-range effort down.
Izwan had to be alert on the half-hour mark once again to deny Shinji Okazaki’s close-range effort with his legs, before centre-back Tomoaki Makino headed wide from Ota’s inswinging corner.
Both sides went into the break goalless, with Japan picking up where they left off after the restart.
Takashi Usami ballooned over after exchanging passes with Okazaki, before Izwan put out a strong left arm to deny the latter’s goalbound header from Ota’s cross.
With the Singapore defence still looking impregnable, Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic threw on Yuya Osako for the out-of-sorts Kagawa for the final half hour.
However, they continued to be denied by a combination of superb goalkeeping from Izwan and the woodwork.
Honda’s powerful header from Ota’s inswinging corner on 67 minutes looked destined for goal, before Izwan somehow flung himself across to tip the ball over the bar.
Makino then got on the end of a superb Honda cross three minutes later, but his header bounced back off the left-hand post.
Honda’s 25-yard free-kick on 72 minutes seemed to have beaten Izwan all hands down, before it crashed off the intersection of the bar and post.
There were worries whether the Lions could hold on as Baihakki limped off injured but captain Hariss Harun proved heroic in the final 10 minutes, ably clearing any danger that came his way.
Time eventually ran out for the luckless Japanese, leaving them to reflect on two points dropped against a side ranked 102 places below them in the FIFA World rankings.
The jeers emanating from the home fans were audible as the final whistle went, reflecting the massive achievement of the Lions to grab a result away from Saitama amidst initial expectations.
As things stand, Bernd Stange’s men improbably sit alone on top of Group E above the likes of Syria, Japan, Afghanistan, Syria and Cambodia.
The Lions will hope to carry that momentum into their next game when they take on Syria away.
Image credit: Football Association of Singapore