Asiad lifeline secured, but Aide has big decisions to make
First to arrive before the opening ceremony and first to leave just after that - that was the fate the Singapore's Under-23 football team suffered in their last two Asian Games outings at Doha 2006 and Guangzhou 2010.
While a plucky 3-3 draw with their Omani counterparts have kept their slim hopes of advancing into the knockout rounds alive, head coach Aide Iskandar will have to make a few major calls on personnel ahead of the decisive match with already-qualified Palestine.
Chief among them is the midfield. Skipper and goalkeeper Hassan Sunny has led a gritty defence, while the wingers and forwards have been effervescent up front, but there has not been an effective link between the two departments in the middle of the park.
The enforced absence of Zulfahmi Arifin further highlighted the lack of depth in that department and he will be racing against time to recover sufficiently from his knee injury to play against the Palestinians. In the LionsXII midfielder's absence, Amirul Adli was thrown into the deep end, partnering Anumanthan Mohan Kumar.
Although the Courts Young Lions midfielder put in a commendable shift in the middle of the park with his tackling, his lack of experience and poor distribution showed as the new central midfield combination struggled to contain the swift quick-passing transitions the Middle Eastern side displayed when in possession.
With Shahfiq Ghani continuing his anonymous showings this year for club and country while playing behind Sahil Suhaimi, the benching of young midfielder Adam Swandi in this tournament – as well as the preceding home international friendlies – has raised questions. Whose idea was it was to bring someone who was not going to play a significant role in a tough Asian Games campaign where every player matters?
Even Aide acknowledged the lack of competitive sharpness had prevented him from using the 18-year-old ahead of the Asiad, but with so much at stake against Palestine, would the former national skipper even think of throwing Adam into the deep end or will he opt to push centre back Safuwan Baharudin up into midfield, like LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad has done so often this season?
Picking the right option
The latter option could be tempting as first-choice left-back Shakir Hamzah passed his first competitive test during a 45-minute second half cameo against the Omanis where his presence and experience steadied the boat at the back. With the 22-year-old set to start against Palestine at his favourite position, Aide has to confront another selection dilemma: where do you field Afiq Yunos, one of the three overage players, in defence now that he doesn't have to cover at left-back anymore?
Oman thoroughly exposed the the 24-year-old's lack of place, with at least one of their goals coming through his side. While senior defender Baihakki Khaizan has been criticised by football netizens for his underwhelming showing in the Asiad, his international experience makes him too valuable to be dropped and the centre back combination of Baihakki and Safuwan remains the most effective at this level.
Could Aide even afford to gamble by deploying the latter in midfield in tournament football? Former national head coach Radjoko Avramovic once did exactly that in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup decider against Vietnam, a move which eventually backfired on the senior national team as they exited at the group stage in that edition.
If the defensive dilemma were not enough to leave a few white hair strands in Aide’s scalp, the quandary with Shahfiq could well be the most acute. Is there time to keep faith in him still, whether in his current position or in centre midfield where his lack of defensive work-rate could end up harming the team?
Or should Aide throw in Iqbal Hussain as the attacking wild card? The Young Lion's most striking attribute is his close ball control, but his showings in recent years have suggested he is very much a confidence player.
When he is on song, he will be unafraid of taking on stronger and bigger opponents, providing an added viable attacking option upfront and distract markers from their usual attention on Sahil and Faris Ramli to handle him, giving the duo more room to create and wreak damage to the Palestinians.
On other days, he can be a passenger, adding to the burden on Sahil and Faris as they try to find ways to outwit a battle-hardened Palestinian backline. While they had shone against Oman through their ingenuity despite a lack of service and luck from sloppy marking, lightning would not strike twice and they would need more help beyond the diligence of speedy winger Nazrul Nazari.
Guts, effort and determination would not be enough for the Young Lions to progress, although these qualities helped them to recover from 3-1 down to salvage a late 3-3 draw. Aide’s tactical and personnel decisions could prove decisive between another humiliating early homecoming from the Asiad and a passage into the next round where the continental giants beckon.
Photo: Football Association of Singapore