Singapore National Team Watch: What’s Hot and What’s Not

Singapore national football team 3
Kenneth Tan

Kenneth Tan brings up the good and bad sides of the Lions after an unbeaten start to Fandi Ahmad’s reign – coming from behind to hold Mauritius 1-1 before comfortably beating Fiji 2-0. 

After being appointed as Singapore national team coach for the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, Fandi had to wait almost four months for his first games in charge of the Lions.

While there were plenty of positives to take from the two friendly games over the past week, there are also areas where his charges have to improve on to challenge seriously at the Suzuki Cup.

Here are some thoughts on the boys in red.

Positives 

Ikhsan ready to spearhead Lions strikeforce

For the longest time, the fans have been wondering who is capable of replacing Khairul Amri or Fazrul Nawaz as Singapore’s striking option for the next decade. The answer may well be in Ikhsan, who netted twice in as many international starts.

Translating his Singapore Premier League (SPL) form onto the international stage, the stocky 19-year-old looks the real deal and should definitely start more games for the Lions from now on. It is not just his goals, but also the fearlessness that he is showing at this level that gives Fandi’s men an edge upfront.

Forget building for the long-term, Ikhsan should start as Singapore’s main striker for the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup.

The old guard is still valuable

While Fandi has stated that youth is the way for the Singapore national team to go up another level, it is clear that the older players still have much to offer and could still play vital roles.

Hassan Sunny still looks a class of a keeper at 34, while fellow “Class of 84” batch mate Baihakki Khaizan has showed he is still one of the best defenders that Singapore has at their disposal right now.

Ikhsan’s emergence may force him out of the starting 11, but Khairul Amri has always provided a spark in the attacking third whenever he’s on the pitch. While there will always be question marks over whether Shahril Ishak can last 90 minutes on the international level, the veteran forward is also a valuable option to have with his experience and nifty touches in key attacking situations.

Sometimes old is still gold…

Singapore’s talent pool is still there

While it is often lamented that there are not enough youngsters coming through for Singapore football, it can also be argued that they have always been there and simply need the chances from the selectors.

Ikhsan’s performances upfront have showed that he is a worthy starting option if given the chance more regularly, but it is not just about him. The Suzliman brothers also showed glimpses of their talent – 20-year-old Zulqarnaen put up a good shift at right-back against Mauritius, while 22-year-old Zulfadhmi was a bright attacking outlet in the same game and came close to scoring on a couple of occasions.

Even 18-year-old Jacob Mahler showed no nerves on his debut against Fiji and showed that he can be a viable option in the middle of the park. It just goes to show there are promising young players in this country and it is up to the coaches to nurture them to become the finished articles.

Negatives

Sloppy starts to games 

While it is still early days in the Fandi era, it is clear that one thing that the Lions got to cut out is the sluggish way that they start games. Against Mauritius, it was the visitors who got out of the blocks early to punish a sleeping backline and went ahead after just four minutes. That meant the Lions had to chase the game from then on.

History almost repeated itself against Fiji, but fortunately Hassan Sunny was in the way to deny Roy Krishna’s close-range shot to keep the scores level. They simply cannot afford to start off so slowly when the Suzuki Cup comes around.

Who is Singapore’s no. 10? 

It looks like Fandi has settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation for his game plan going ahead, with probably Ikhsan leading the line. However the verdict is still out on who should play the no. 10 role just behind him to link the midfield and attack.

Yasir Hanapi was chosen for the role against Mauritius, but is not exactly a creative player and looked much more effective when he was switched to the right later on (and similarly against Fiji when he came on as a sub). Shahdan Sulaiman replaced him to start against Fiji and is usually a smooth operator, but did not enjoy the best of nights before being subbed at half-time.

Shahril looked the most natural fit for the role, but Fandi has said the veteran will only play ’30 to 40 minutes’. It is a conundrum that the Lions have to solve fast before the Suzuki Cup, for there is still quite a lack of clear-cut chances created for all the attacking verve they showed over the past two games.

Euphoria has to go down a notch

After some unsatisfactory results previously under V. Sundramoorthy, Singapore fans are now looking forward and understandably excited about the new reign under Fandi. Fair enough, there are enough positives to take from the past two games.

However lest we forget, Sundram got off to a decent start to his reign as well – beating Myanmar 1-0 and losing to Vietnam 3-0 only via extra-time goals. So it is unfair to compare or quantify the level of progress made.

With no disrespect to Mauritius and Fiji, tougher tests await Singapore in the months or years ahead. The Lions have to continue improving to show that they can challenge the likes of Thailand and Vietnam to become ASEAN kingpins again.

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