The Lions have every reason to feel optimistic ahead of June’s Asian Cup qualifiers after following up Saturday’s 2-1 win over Malaysia with a 2-0 victory over the Philippines at the National Stadium on Tuesday (March 29).
The encouraging signs over both matches were that they seemed to have settled well in a 3-4-1-2 system, and produced different ways to win games.
Against the Harimau Malaya, they counter-attacked to deadly effect, and against the Azkals, they relied on set-piece prowess to open the scoring as Safuwan Baharudin powered in a 10th-minute header – his 13th goal in 105 caps – off a pinpoint corner from Shahdan Sulaiman, who also rocked the woodwork with a free-kick at the end of the first half.
In the 90th minute, substitute Shawal Anuar marked his 20th cap by polishing off Hariss Harun’s lofted through-pass for his second international goal.
Such attacking options will be especially handy against higher-ranked Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Myanmar in the Asian Cup qualifiers.
It is also worth noting that the Philippines, full of foreign-born and foreign-based players, had beaten Tajikistan twice to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, while mixing one win and one loss against Kyrgyzstan in 2016 and 2019 respectively.
Yet, Singapore stood firm and remained disciplined even when the battle got physical, and it was Philippines defender Diego Bardanca who was sent off in the 39th minute after bookable offences against Amy Recha and Hariss within three minutes.
The Lions’ three-man defence also did well to keep a clean sheet, but they also had Hassan Sunny to thank for another outstanding save in first-half added time to deny Enrique Linares.
Late on, there was time for 22-year-old Shah Shahiran to collect his first cap by coming on for Song Ui-young in front of 9,183 fans.
Whether Singapore interim coach Nazri Nasir’s blueprint will be retained by his successor is still unknown, but from the two friendlies, the spine of goalkeeper Hassan, centre-backs Irfan Fandi, Hariss and Safuwan, midfielders Song and Shahdan, and striker Ikhsan Fandi looks to have already cemented their positions.
Credit has to go to Nazri and his backroom staff for getting their tactics right and the team motivated to keep up the feel-good factor from last year’s Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup.
But to secure their first-ever Asian Cup qualification – Singapore played in the 1984 edition as hosts – is an entirely different prospect.
At half-time, rock band AC/DC screamed through the loudspeakers: It’s a long way to the top. And it’s a reminder of the huge concern that stems from the Lions remaining without a head coach with just around 70 days to go to their Asian Cup qualifiers, with the appointment being made only in April.
The new coach is unlikely to get any official international matches to get to know his players better, and it is unclear if he will carry on where former coach Tatsuma Yoshida and Nazri left off or impose his own ideas, which will obviously take time to get used to.
But at least, Singapore have some rare momentum and good form to build on now.