Singapore vs Japan: Can the Lions replicate their Saitama heroics?

2018 World Cup Qualifiers | National Stadium, Singapore Sports Hub | Thurs 12 Nov | 7.15pm

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History can’t possibly repeat … can it?

The lowdown

Since the revamped National Stadium at the Singapore Sports Hub officially opened its doors in August last year, we have seen the likes of Juventus and Arsenal come to town.

Yet this could be the game that sets a new benchmark in terms of attendance. Backtrack to 16 June 2015, when Singapore took on Japan in Saitama. Not even the most optimistic fan would have expected the Lions to leave Japan with any points in their keeping.

Boy, what followed was a true shocker for the Asian football scene as Bernd Stange’s men held the four-time Asian Cup champions to a goalless draw.

Sure they rode their luck, with the Japanese hitting the woodwork twice, Shinji Kagawa enduring his worst game in years and goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud playing the game of his life (that 18-save feat has already been written into local football folklore). However there was no denying the massive level of achievement for the Lions.

That result set the tone for a good World Cup/Asian Cup qualifying campaign, accumulating 10 points from five matches so far to sit third in Group E – level on points with Japan, who have played a game less, and two points behind leaders Syria.

With only the eight group winners and the four best group runners-up advancing to the third round of World Cup qualification, as well as qualifying straight for the 2019 Asian Cup in United Arab Emirates, every point in these remaining three matches will prove absolutely crucial.

Local fans may have bemoaned the uninspiring style of football displayed in wins against Afghanistan and Cambodia in October, but surely they would not mind sacrificing style over substance this time around.

Singapore Form

  • Singapore 2-1 Cambodia (WCQ)
  • Singapore 1-0 Afghanistan (WCQ)
  • Syria 1-0 Singapore (WCQ)
  • Qatar 4-0 Singapore (Friendly)
  • Japan 0-0 Singapore (WCQ)

Moving across into the Japan camp, it seems like the shock draw at Saitama was a wake-up call the Samurai Blue needed. Since then, they have walloped Cambodia 3-0, Afghanistan 6-0 and Syria 3-0.

Japan Form

  • Iran 1-1 Japan (Friendly)
  • Syria 0-3 Japan (WCQ)
  • Afghanistan 0-6 Japan (WCQ)
  • Japan 3-0 Cambodia (WCQ)
  • China 1-1 Japan (EAFF) 

It is setting them up nicely for this visit to the Lion City, where they will surely be out for revenge. The boos that rang around the Saitama Stadium that night were rather shocking, given the fact the Japanese fans are never known for jeering their own team. 

Thus Kagawa and company will be relishing the opportunity to set the record straight and collect the three points to help them go top of Group E. Nearest rivals Syria will not be in action until next Tuesday, when they will take on the Lions at the same venue.

Team News

There should not be many surprises in the Singapore starting 11, with Stange known to stick to his preferred guns. That means Izwan is almost certain to start in goal, despite Hassan Sunny showing great form in the Thai Premier League with Army United.

The back four of Nazrul Nazari, Madhu Mohana, Baihakki Khaizan and Shaiful Esah should continue, while Izzdin Shafiq and Hariss Harun patrol the middle of the park.

Hafiz Sujad is likely to be chosen on the left wing for his hard running style, while it looks like a straight fight between close friends Faris Ramli and Sahil Suhaimi on the opposite flank.

Otherwise it should be Safuwan Baharudin playing the roving role behind Fazrul Nawaz, who is the obvious option to fill in Khairul Amri’s void upfront. Amri has been ruled out for four weeks after straining his hamstring during LionsXII’s 2-1 away win against Terengganu FA last Wednesday.

Meanwhile for Japan, coach Vahid Halilhodzic has named a star-studded 23-strong squad which includes 11 overseas-based players.

Amongst the notable names are Borussia Dortmund playmaker Kawaga, AC Milan forward Keisuke Honda and Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki, but there is more to the Samurai Blue than the above-mentioned trio.

Yoshinori Muto, 23, has been creating waves in Germany with Mainz 05 and is slowing breaking into the national set-up, while captain Makoto Hasebe and Hannover 96’s Hiroshi Kiyotake pull the strings in midfield.

The defence is of course led by Southampton’s Maya Yoshida, while Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo and Kiyotake’s club teammate Hiroki Sakai fill the full-back positions.

In goal should be the unheralded Shusaku Nishikawa, who plays for Urawa Red Diamonds in the J.League. The long-serving Eji Kawashima, who played in the 0-0 draw in Saitama, has been dropped from recent squads.

In June, Singapore understandably celebrated their 0-0 draw

Player to Watch: Fazrul Nawaz  

For Fazrul, patience may well be a virtue as he is likely to finally get a chance to start in his favoured forward position, with leading front man Amri injured.

The 30-year-old has been firing on all cylinders this year since joining Warriors FC after his failed Sabah FA move, just behind Brunei DPMM’s Rafael Ramazotti in the race for the Golden Boot with his 18 league goals.

It will interesting to see how Fazrul fares alone upfront against the Japanese defensive pairing of Yoshida and Tomoaki Makino and if he adds to his tally of nine goals in 77 international appearances so far.

He will have to take every chance that comes his way, just as did emphatically against Cambodia (main picture above).

The Coaches

The jury is still out on Singapore coach Bernd Stange despite turning things around this year, dating back to the disastrous 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup campaign.

Local fans have bemoaned the lack of progress in term of the one-touch passing football which the experienced German is trying to implement, with the Lions too often seen adopting the Route One approach instead.

Meanwhile, Japan counterpart Vahid Halilhodzic has seemingly steadied the ship after the shock 0-0 draw in Saitama, which happened to be his first competitive game in charge.

The Bosnian told the Japan Football Association (JFA) website that he is eyeing revenge in this fixture.

“The Singapore match is an opportunity to get back at ourselves,” he said. “I want my players to brace themselves for the match." 

Japan will surely be out for revenge

Facts and Figures

  • The sides are separated by 102 places in the FIFA rankings – Singapore are ranked 152nd, while Japan are 50th. Interestingly, that’s the same gap as the match back in June (154th v 52nd). Japan are the third highest-ranked Asian nation, behind 43rd-placed Iran and 48th-placed South Korea.
  • Japan have easily held the upper hand in head-to-head battles. The Asian giants have won 18, drawn twice and lost just three times in 23 encounters.
  • The last time Singapore played Japan at home was in 2004 where they lost 2-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium. Indra Sahdan’s 64th minute goal cancelled out Naohiro Takahara’s 34th minute opener. Toshiya Fujita then fired home the winner for the visitors eight minutes from time.
  • Only three Singapore players who featured in that game remain in the national set-up today – Hassan, Baihakki and captain Shahril Ishak.
  • Singapore’s top scorers in this qualifying campaign are Safuwan and Amri with two apiece, while Japan’s top scorers are Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki with three apiece.

FourFourTwo predictions Editor Zee Ko: Singapore 0 Japan 2. A loss will be no shame for the Lions, but another determined stand will do their confidence a lot of good.

Kenneth Tan: Singapore 1 Japan 3. The rejuvenated Samurai Blue should prove to be too strong, but I fancy the Lions’ chance of sneaking a goal.

Yahoo Sports’ Teng Kiat: Singapore 1 Japan 0. Go big or go home. Fazrul to pop up with a dream winner.