SINGAPORE — The scoreboard at the Jalan Besar Stadium went kaput even before Singapore's AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup campaign officially began, but the Lions ensured their hopes of advancing into the semi-finals did not get off on a similarly wrong foot on Saturday (24 December).
A hard-earned 3-2 win over 10-man Myanmar showed off both their verve and their frailty, as the hosts looked bright and vibrant in attack, but shaky and nervous in defence. They showed tenacity to recover from a goal down, but had to also thank their lucky stars as Myanmar wasted numerous chances to punish them.
In the end, it was an encouraging result for the Lions to build on for their next three group matches, and they will have to make significant improvements if they are to take points off Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia and progress into the next stages of the AFF Cup.
Head coach Takayuki Nishigaya praised his players - as well as the 5,370-strong crowd - for showing good spirit in recovering from the one-goal deficit, but said that he has to look at the match videos in the coming days to pin-point the areas which the Lions have to strengthen.
"It is the first match of the tournament, so for sure we have many areas where we can work to improve before the next matches," he said via an interpreter.
"But I'm happy that the players did not lose heart after going a goal down, and I congratulate them on the good performances. We will recover, and we will build on this win."
In the absences of the suspended veterans Hassan Sunny and Irfan Fandi, the less-experienced Lions such as Ilhan Fandi, Zaiful Nizam and Shah Shahiran caught the eye with assured performances that dragged the Lions towards victory.
Ilhan, however, had a scary moment in the 42nd minute, as he was seemingly knocked out cold after a heavy clash with the Myanmar goalkeeper Myo Min Latt, but he recovered and remarkably scored Singapore's equaliser just before half-time to lay the grounds for the victory.
Crucial equaliser before half-time
The Lions started brightly, with Ilhan trying a deft lob over Myo in the sixth minute that went just over the crossbar.
Wing-backs Christopher van Huizen and Hafiz Nor were the key sources of creating opportunities with dangerous crosses from the flanks for Ilhan and Shawal Anuar, but their forays into attack risked being exposed by the fleet-footed Myanmar forwards.
And sure enough, the visitors benefitted from a breakdown in the Lions' attack to take the lead in the 34th minute. The ball broke to Aung Kaung Mann, who plowed forward down the centre before laying up for an onrushing captain Maung Maung Lwin, who evaded Shakir Hamzah's lunging tackle before slotting past Zaiful.
The goal stunned the crowd at Jalan Besar, as fears of a shock defeat loomed, and their anxiety was compounded when Ilhan was involved in the heavy clash. Fortunately, he did not suffer a concussion or head injury from the clash, and was cleared to carry on.
A few moments later, he was on hand to score the Lions' equaliser just before half-time. Van Huizen did all the hard work, cutting in from the left flank before launching a pin-point cross which was gratefully headed in by Ilhan.
Recovered again after defensive error
The goal galvanised the Lions and their supporters, and they flew out of the blocks in the second half, duly taking the lead in the 49th minute.
Substitute midfielder Hami Syahin surged forward unchallenged in the centre of the field, before laying off for Shah, who launched an unerring shot from just outside the penalty area that Myo could only palm it on into the net.
However, the Lions were pegged back again by a sustained spell of Myanmar pressure, and cracked with substitute right-back Ryhan Stewart flubbed a clearance straight to Maung in the 66th minute, and the Myanmar captain again made no mistake with a crisp shot into the bottom corner.
It looked as if the Lions might have to settle for a draw, with Ilhan already taken off with a nose contusion from his earlier knock. But the hosts conjured a winner in the 74th minute through the simplest route possible - a long punt by Zaiful down the field, which Shawal latched on to and, before the Myanmar defenders had time to react, slammed home to the loudest roar of the night.
"It was an unacceptable defensive lapse on our part," lamented Myanmar's German head coach Antoine Hey. "I though we were the better side for the match, but we made defensive errors and could not take our chances. So congratulations to Singapore for the result."
There was time for Myanmar defender Nanda Kyaw to receive a straight red card for punching Shah in the gut in the 81st minute, and the Lions hung on for dear life before they breathed a sigh of relief at the hard-earned victory.
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