Why Izwan is ready for a big overseas move: 3 things from Singapore 0-3 Japan
Izwan Mahbud shines yet again
There is no doubt about it now, after another splendid performance between the sticks for Izwan Mahbud – the LionsXII goalkeeper is in the form of his life and once again showed that his heroic performance last time out against Japan was no fluke.
As a blue wave of attackers bore down on his goal, Singapore's No.1 stood tall and ready to repel virtually all that came his way. Again and again, the Samurai Blue were denied by the 179cm 'behemoth' in the Singapore goal. It wouldn't have been surprising to see the likes of Keisuke Honda howling at the Sports Hub roof in frustration as Izwan and his defence denied the AC Milan man twice in the opening exchanges.
The Singaporean might not be the largest of goaltenders, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in heart. That and a knack of closing down the angles and giving any attacker only a sliver of goal to aim at.
Japan's first goal, when it did come, was not down to any error from Izwan. Mu Kanazaki had all the time and space in the world as he controlled the ball on his chest, swivelled and then volleyed into a top corner. The Japanese striker was almost bang on the penalty spot and gave Izwan no chance from right in front. While we can throw a lot of superlatives at the Singapore goalkeeper, he's definitely not superhuman (or 'Inhuman', as is the comic book-inspired rage these days).
Likewise with the second goal, which took a handy deflection off Nazrul Nazari to wrongfoot a diving Izwan. Or the third goal, which despite Maya Yoshida redirecting it at the very last moment, actually involved an Izwan fingertip before it bulged the back of the net.
But in between and after those strikes, it was all Izwan flinging himself at Japanese shots and plucking balls from the air. All the appreciative home crowd could do was gasp at every chance and marvel as he put his body on the line again and again.
Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic was adamant that his side could and should have scored more than three goals on the night, telling reporters with a straight face that he'd lost count of the number of saves Singapore's goalkeeper had made over the two matches.
One hopes that any Japanese scouts watching the game would have come to the same conclusion. It might be time for Izwan to leave our shores and while that will disappoint LionsXII fans, it can only be a good thing for the 25-year-old and for Singapore.
One thing was missing from Singapore's performance last night. And no, we're not talking about Khairul Amri.
While the veteran striker was definitely missed, so was the long ball from Singapore's arsenal. The Lions have a habit of knocking it up the field when chasing games, but at no point in last night's match did they resort to such tactics.
Unfortunately, while their intentions were noble it just made Japan's job all too easy.
Make no mistake, Bernd Stange's plan was clear from the start as Singapore defended deep and settled in for a war of attrition. The sight of Faris Ramli losing the ball in the attacking third and then immediately scampering back to the Singapore half told the tale. Singapore were going to defend for their lives and hope for another commendable goalless draw.
That all went out of the window after 20 minutes, which was the time it took Japan to open the scoring. Suddenly, Singapore had to chase the game. But how?
The ultra-defensive tactics meant the Lions were unable to launch any counter-attacks because everyone was behind the ball. This handed the initiative to Japan, who were able to keep on probing till the cracks appeared in the Singapore defence. Once Stange's men went behind, this proved problematic because there was no early Plan B.
Fazrul Nawaz, such a deadly goal poacher in the S.League, was wasted chasing shadows in and around the centre circle. It was not lost on Stange, who took him off at half-time for the speedier and trickier Sahil Suhaimi. The Malaysia FA Cup hero's burst of acceleration and ability to stretch defences gave Singapore an added dimension and more bite after the break. If only his teammates didn't keep giving the ball away.
You can hardly blame them though. The Lions were outclassed in almost every department, no questions about it. Whenever Japan attacked, you could see willing runners moving into space, forming pretty little triangles as they pinged the ball around overworked Singapore defenders and towards goal.
On the other hand, Singapore's players were strung out all over the field in ragged clumps, making any attack on the counter nigh on impossible. Even while 2-0 up, Japan pressed, making it hard for the Lions to get out of their own half. It was a disciplined showing from one of Asia's best teams, as Singapore constantly gave the ball right back to their opponents moments after winning it.
By playing the ball on the ground constantly, the Lions looked all too predictable. It was basically the football equivalent of tying one hand behind your back in a mixed martial arts fight against Ronda Rousey and then attempting to outpunch her.
Time to hit the gym
Let's face it, it was always going to be an uphill battle when you considered the calibre of players in both teams.
"There was no chance; they hounded us from the very first minute from left to right with their short passing game and splitting passes through the middle and put us under enormous pressure," said Stange after the game.
What was surprising though was how much stronger and fitter Japan's players looked all night. It's a given that most Asian players won't be as built up as their European counterparts, but on this occasion Singapore's representatives looked tiny compared to their Japanese opponents.
The Singapore defenders were being monstered everytime Japan attacked, pushed off the ball too easily by the visitors. Whether it was tussling for a high ball or going shoulder to shoulder for a through ball, the outmatched Lions invariably came off second best.
It was quite something to see the likes of Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin being held off with ease in defensive situations. It doesn't happen very often in league football around these parts but the Japanese players definitely had their number. The few times that Safuwan did manage to get the better of his opponent, referee Fahad Almirdasi would blow for a foul and call the action back.
And it wasn't just down to size. With Japan getting sloppy on occasions in the second half, Singapore had a few chances to counter. One of these came as the ball was cleared down the left flank for Hafiz Sujad to run on to, only for the LionsXII winger to get outpaced handily by Japanese full-back Hiroki Sakai.
Singapore have a way to go to reach Japan's level, but while it might take some time, the Lions' opponents on the night showed that it is not an impossible task. This is the level Singapore have to aim for if they hope to one day reach the World Cup. Goal 2050 anyone?