As part of Singapore’s preparations for the upcoming AFF Championship, the national team has recently flown to Dubai to play two friendly fixtures in the next few days. On 11 November, the Lions take on Kyrgyzstan in an official ‘A’ international fixture. A few days later, on 14 November, they take on the Moroccan ‘A’ side in an unofficial friendly. These matches offer head coach Tatsuma Yoshida and his squad a prime opportunity to build team cohesion and enhance tactical familiarity.
As a fan, I sincerely hope that the Singapore national team makes full use of this opportunity. While results from both games obviously matter, it’s how they achieve those results that matter more. Particularly, I think fans would agree that they would rather see the national team play some positive, vibrant, and exciting football even when the odds are stacked against them.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a defensive masterclass when I see one, but the Lions need to be aiming for the AFF title with home ground advantage – and that means scoring goals. Obviously, the many cynics out there would lambast this view as nothing more than me building castles in the sky. However, Singapore must play to win. Against Thailand and the Philippines, the Lions need to show that they can convert their chances, which they failed to do in recent matches.
The last time the Singapore national team was in action was during the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers in June. After a long hiatus from the international arena, many fans eagerly tuned in to catch the Lions take on Palestine, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia. Realistically, no one expected Singapore to pull upsets and unsurprisingly, Singapore suffered defeats in all three fixtures. Yet, many fans voiced their frustration watching the national team. Their gripe? The fact that the Lions weren’t trying hard enough. Staying up till the wee hours of the morning, fans were met with an abysmal display against Palestine. The Lions lacked serious bite and against Uzbekistan, it was a similar tale. Sure, there was some improvement from their showing against Palestine but pertinent issues remained.
Yet, against Saudi Arabia in their final 2022 World Cup Qualifier, we saw a very different Singapore side – a side that had the burning passion to hold their ground against a titan of Asian football. For 82 minutes, Singapore withstood the Saudi bombardment. Throwing their bodies in front of shots and making critical challenges, the Lions were determined in preserving the 0-0 scoreline. However, a quick succession of goals in the final ten minutes saw Singapore implode. They ran out of gas and the Saudis capitalized on this. Yet, while the Lions may have lost, a good chunk of the fans lauded the Lions’ efforts.
Nevertheless, the lack of goals is a pressing issue. Clearly, Singapore is over-reliant on Ikhsan Fandi for regular goals. The last time Singapore scored a goal was in November 2019. Ikhsan and Hafiz Nor got on the scoresheet for the Lions as they beat Yemen 2-1. Against Kyrgyzstan, two players could make their debut and demonstrate their offensive prowess to Yoshida. Recently naturalized Song Ui-young illustrated how he can get the ball in the back of the net when fielded as a striker when playing for Sailors this season.
Amy Recha is another player who could become a key figure for the Lions in this AFF Championship. Only Gabriel Quak has scored more goals , the former Geylang International ace. Scoring a remarkable twelve goals season, it would be interesting to see how he fares against Kyrgyzstan in what would become his national team debut.
While Song and Amy inject some new blood to a stale Lions attack, Singapore should never underestimate the Kyrgyzstan national team. Currently ranked 96th in the FIFA rankings, they are a force to be reckoned with. They smashed ten-man Myanmar 8 -1 during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in June. In September, Kyrgyzstan claimed a 1-0 victory over Palestine (a team that beat us 4-0 in June) and made quick work of Bangladesh in a 4-1 win. Scoring goals isn’t an issue for Kyrgyzstan and our defences need to be ready.
Who lines up in defence certainly matters because Yoshida has multiple options at his disposal. After the shambolic World Cup Qualifiers, fans would expect to see a stronger showing in defence. Since this is the national team’s only opportunity to properly test itself in preparation for the AFF Championship, Yoshida would probably want to experiment with the players at his disposal. If Singapore chooses to adopt a back four, some important questions need to be asked.
Will Irfan Fandi pair with Safuwan Baharudin in the heart of defence? Will Shakir Hamzah feature as a left-back or a central defender? Will Tajeli Salamat start over Nazrul Nazari?
If they choose a back five, it seems almost certain that Irfan Fandi will partner with Shakir and Safuwan with potentially Nur Adam as a left-wingback and Tajeli or Nazrul as a right-wingback. Then, of course, questions about the shape of the midfield start to surface. It is certainly a pickle for Yoshida to contend with.
Selecting the right defensive permutation would potentially enable the Lions to succeed in December. However, given that these two matches are the only preparatory fixtures prior to the competition, they need to be taken seriously. While the results of these friendlies obviously matter to fans, the performances matter more and these fixtures may have serious future implications for Yoshida in particular. While he may have extended his contract with the national team by a year, the negative performances by the national team in June saw passionate Singaporean fans gradually turning against him.
Obviously, losses would not spell the end of Yoshida’s reign as head coach but poor performances might see more fans losing confidence in his ability to manage the national team. Should that happen, then the stakes become even higher next month.
Featured Images: Football Association of Singapore
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