SINGAPORE — The Group B table at the AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup may show Singapore having played twice and winning both matches.
But it does not show how much the Lions have struggled to get both wins against the minnows of the group. After scraping past Myanmar 3-2 at Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (24 December), they laboured again to an uninspiring 2-0 win over Laos in Vientiane on Tuesday.
Now comes the tough part: Singapore will play Cup favourites Vietnam at home on Friday, and then travel to Kuala Lumpur for the crunch match against arch-rivals Malaysia on 3 January.
Judging from their performance against Laos, they would need improvements on all areas on the pitch to get positive results from the next two games and advance into the semi-finals.
Unlike the Myanmar match where they looked vibrant in attack but shaky in defence, it was the reverse against Laos: the defence - which welcomed the returns of veterans Hassan Sunny and Irfan Fandi from suspensions - was sturdy enough, but the attack was limp and disjointed all match.
In the end, head coach Takayuki Nishigaya could thank the Lions' traditional set-piece prowess, coupled with a late error by the Laotian goalkeeper Phounin Xayyasone, for the modest victory.
Hosts determined to keep scoreline respectable
And modest is the appropriate description for the win, as the scoreline flattered the Lions, even though Laos - the lowest-ranked team in Group B at world No.187 - were thrashed 0-6 by Vietnam and 0-5 by Malaysia in their opening two group matches.
The hosts must have been stung by those heavy defeats, as they pressured the Lions into sloppy turnovers all match, determined to keep the scoreline respectable. And although they are limited in attack - they are the only side yet to score at the tournament - they created more chances after half-time than Singapore.
Singapore began the match without two of their scorers in the Myanmar match - Shah Shahiran and Shawal Anuar - as Nishgaya opted to rotate the line-up and bring in Zulfahmi Arifin and Song Ui-young.
While the duo fared well, the Lions were tentative from the outset, as passes either went astray or found a nippy Laos player snatching back possession.
A well-worked set-piece routine looked to offer the most likely route to goal, and sure enough, Singapore's opener came via that avenue in the 32nd minute.
A foul on left flank by Anantaza Siphongphan, gave Zulfahmi the chance swing in a beautiful, curling free-kick, and Irfan leapt the highest on the far post to head strongly home.
The goal, however, did not rouse the Lions out of their lethargic performance. In fact, Laos took the initiative back, with forward Chony Waenpaseuth slamming a vicious shot just wide, and midfielder Phithack Kongmathilath nearly catching Hassan off-guard when his long attempt clipped the crossbar.
Nishigaya used up all his substitutions to try and inject more vibrancy in attack, but the Lions continued to huff and puff without troubling the Laos defence, until the final minute of stoppage time.
Shawal, who should stake a claim for the starting spot with another bright performance, chased down a long punt down the centre - just like he did when scoring the winner against Myanmar. This time, Xayyasone dawdled too long, and Shawal stripped the unfortunate goalkeeper, and rounded him before slotting into an empty net.
A modest win which may have repercussions should it boil down to goal difference between Singapore and Malaysia. The Lions have much to work on ahead of the crunch matches.
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