When Singapore’s leading marksman Ikhsan Fandi crumpled to the ground in the 38th minute during the Lions’ final warm-up game against Maldives, fans held their collective breath, fearing the worst as the forward was stretchered off the pitch.
As fans awaited news of the extent of Ikhsan’s injury, tragedy struck again. In the 61st minute, key midfielder Adam Swandi was taken out by Maldives fullback Ahmed Numaan. Clearly, in serious discomfort, the Lion City Sailors’ midfield engine tried to hobble off the pitch but eventually had to be carried off as well.
Subsequently, both players have been ruled out of the upcoming AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup 2022, which is due to kick off on the 24th of December. This presents a massive selection headache for Singapore, as the importance of the duo cannot be understated.
Ikhsan Fandi, Singapore’s leading talisman, has cemented his place as one of the first names on the national team sheet. As a classic number 9, Ikhsan is blessed with great physicality and a frightening finish, such that fans around the region have likened his playstyle to a certain Erling Haaland. With his genuine goal threat and holdup ability, he not only strikes fear into opposing defences but also lifts his teammates, knowing that they can rely on him to put the ball in the back of the net. Having notched 17 goals in 33 international appearances, replacing him would definitely be no easy feat.
Singapore head coach Takayuki Nishigaya’s final 23-man squad includes four forwards after Tampines Rovers’ Taufik Suparno pulled out due to family reasons. Apart from Ikhsan, midfielder-turned-defender Hariss Harun is the next leading goalscorer in the squad with 11 goals, followed by winger Faris Ramli with 10.
This immediately thrusts Ikhsan’s younger brother Ilhan Fandi into the limelight. As the only other centre-forward in the squad, the 20-year-old is expected to bear a much greater responsibility going into the tournament. Coming off an exceptional 20-goal season with this season’s Singapore Premier League champions Albirex Niigata, Ilhan was named the Young Player of the Year and also included in the Team of the Year.
Importantly, Ilhan is not exactly a like-for-like replacement for his brother. While Ikhsan operates as a pure finisher and goalscorer, Ilhan offers something a little different with his polished ability to drop deep and link play. He has already gotten off the mark in national colours against the Maldives with a brilliant header. Prior to being substituted, he was a constant threat in and around the penalty box, serving as the target for crosses while dropping to link play with the midfield.
However, it is worth noting that Ilhan still remains largely untested as the leading striker of the team. It would be interesting to see how the young forward copes with the intimidating atmosphere that comes with pressure-cooker arenas such as Malaysia’s Bukit Jalil National Stadium.
Aside from Ilhan, there are still senior figures in the squad capable of making the step up.
One of the first names would be Lion City Sailors’ Song Ui-young, who has enjoyed a stellar season with the dethroned champions. A versatile player who can occupy the midfield and left-wing positions, Song has arguably shone the brightest when deployed through the middle. Hardworking, and tireless, while possessing a killer eye for goal, Song is well-known for his tenacity and amazing work rate throughout his many years in Singapore.
Having played 13 games at centre-forward, Song has returned 9 goals and 5 assists, including a memorable campaign in the Asian Champions League (ACL). Besides, he has also played centrally for Singapore against Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan, proving his effectiveness as a false-nine.
One of the late inclusions in the squad, Amy Recha has endured a somewhat underwhelming season with Hougang United, with just 8 goals and 3 assists in 35 appearances. The year before, he did enjoy a prolific campaign with Geylang International in the 20/21 season, showing he has what it takes to fill the centre-forward role. A pacey player who is fond of running in behind defences, Amy poses a constant threat on the counter-attack especially if Singapore chooses to sit deep.
Shawal Anuar will definitely hope that his career-high 14 goals and 10 assists can help justify a starting berth in Nishigaya’s team. Fresh from netting a brace off the bench against Maldives, the 31-year-old is equally adept at finishing off chances as well as creating them for his teammates. In the friendly, both Amy and Shawal looked dangerous collectively as an aggressive pressing unit, allowing them to win the ball in dangerous positions. Lion City Sailors winger Faris Ramli has good experience on the international stage, but his inconsistent finishing this season has been concerning.
While all the aforementioned players are quick wingers, they lack the physical presence of Ikhsan and Ilhan, which is important if Singapore opts to go direct.
Previously touted as Singapore football’s “next big thing”, Adam Swandi has looked like a player reborn this season. A silky, yet versatile midfielder who is capable of playing anywhere across the midfield and on the wings, the 26-year-old is adept at winning the ball back and spraying a delightful pass out to a teammate. Hence, his injury is a huge blow given Nishigaya’s fondness towards players who can cover multiple positions.
When it comes to midfield options, first-choice playmakers Shahdan Sulaiman and Zulfahmi Arifin both excel at their job as deep-lying progressive passers. However, at 34 and 31 respectively, their lack of mobility leaves them vulnerable on the transition, especially against speedy opposition like the Malaysians or the Vietnamese.
This is where Adam’s absence is more keenly felt, as he possesses the legs to cover enough ground, giving Shahdan the assurance to push higher up the pitch.
Positionally, Anumanthan Kumar would be the most suitable to fill the gap. A hard-tackling, strong, robust defensive midfielder, Anu never shies away from a challenge or loose ball. However, Anu has looked rocky in possession on multiple occasions for both the Sailors and country this season, which is coupled by his rashness that often lands him in the book. At times, he has been guilty of cheaply giving the ball away in the middle, leading to quick opposition turnovers. It is clear that consistency has been an issue for him, as he has struggled to nail down a starting berth in the Sailors setup. Despite that, he would likely be the pick to fill the number 6 role, as there are few players in the squad that can provide that physical presence and break down attacks as well as he can.
Rising star Shah Shahiran is a good shout as well. Despite his young age, he has found himself starting regularly at the heart of midfield under Nishigaya. His classy performances for an underwhelming Young Lions have certainly caught the attention of many fans, especially his ability to effortlessly spray the ball across the pitch to a teammate. Shah also can swing in a wicked delivery on set pieces, giving the Lions another option aside from Shahdan.
Having revitalised his fledgling career this season, Geylang’s midfield enforcer Joshua Pereira has also caught the eye of Nishigaya. Equally comfortable when slotting in at centre-back or in midfield, he has already put up two respectable performances upon his return to the national team fold against Vietnam and India.
However, this leap will definitely not be easy for them, as seen from how Shah struggled against a very physical Maldives side, while Joshua lacked significant match fitness. Playmaker Hami Syahin has also seen minimal minutes at Lion City Sailors.
If needed, captain Hariss Harun can also step into midfield – a position that he is all too familiar with having played there countless times for his country and previous club Johor Darul Ta’zim. The experience and calmness that he brings to the midfield are crucial when it comes to easing the new players in.
With two key players ruled out for the Lions, including arguably one of the best strikers in the Southeast Asian region at the moment, the other teams in Group A would be heaving a sigh of relief. That being said, this is certainly a golden opportunity for the other players to fill the boots of the two absentees and stake their claim in the national team setup.
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