SINGAPORE — Down to eight men with both their first-choice centre-backs and goalkeeper being sent off, Singapore battled to the point of exhaustion, earning loud cheers from the 9,982-strong home fans, but were unable to prevent Indonesia from grabbing a 4-2 extra-time victory in the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final second-leg clash at National Stadium on Saturday (25 December).
There were passages of the match when it had seemed that the Lions could snatch an improbable victory and advance into their first Suzuki Cup final since 2012. Ultimately though, they failed to hold on to a 2-1 lead and flubbed a glorious chance when Faris Ramli missed a stoppage-time penalty, and the Indonesians were able to march on.
It was a bitter finish for the hosts, especially after they refused to fold even after Irfan Fandi received a straight red card for pulling down Irfan Jaya on goal in the 67th minute. His defence partner Safuwan Baharudin had already been given the marching orders just before half-time for his second bookable offence.
A defiant Lions head coach Tatsuma Yoshida said he was moved by his players' fighting spirit, adding,"I told my boys before the match to (seize) the opportunity to get to the final. Their answer was in their performance. This was the best performance I've seen from my players since I came to Singapore.
"Referee is referee. (If) they say foul is foul. (If) they say red card is red card. We have to accept it. That’s football."
When an Indonesia journalist asked the Japanese what went wrong in the match for his player, he answered tersely. "Nothing. Nothing went wrong."
Indonesia thus advanced into their sixth final with a 5-3 aggregate win after their 1-1 first-leg draw on Wednesday, and they will try to shed their underachievers tag by winning the Suzuki Cup for the first time.
Surprise selection from Lions head coach
Yoshida has always exhorted his Singapore national team players to be bold on the pitch. And he walked the talk by throwing a surprise change-up in his starting XI, replacing four players who started in the first leg.
While Zulqarnaen Suzliman and Hafiz Nor had deputised capably for Nazrul Nazari and Zulfahmi Arifin, the shock came in the other two changes: Ikhsan Fandi and Faris Ramli - who set up Ikhsan's first-leg goal - being dropped for Amy Recha and Hami Syahin, both of whom were making their first starts of the tournament.
Presumably, Ikhsan and Faris were kept on the bench to be unleashed in the later stages of the game, given the possibility of the tie going into extra-time and penalties. With Amy and Hami looking bright and full of running upon kick-off, the match seemed set up for another tight tussle.
However, calamity struck for the hosts in the 11th minute.
Indonesia midfielder Ramai Rumakiek's punt down the right flank should have been dealt with routinely by Safuwan Baharudin and captain Hariss Harun, even though they were put under pressure by Witan.
However, Safuwan failed to clear the ball as Witan raced through, evading Hariss just in time to squeeze in a low pass to an onrushing Ezra Walian, who slotted past Hassan Sunny from close range.
It was a harsh blow for the Lions, and as they began searching for an equaliser, the Indonesians became less adventurous in order to preserve their advantage, and the game became a stop-start affair with both sides getting increasingly physical with their challenges.
Controversial red card by Omani referee
Things came to a boil in first-half stoppage time. Omani referee Qasim Matar Ali Al-Hatmi, who had already earned the home fans' ire with several questionable calls against the Lions, spotted Safuwan jostling aggressively with an Indonesian defender before a free-kick could be taken from the right flank.
He called both to calm down, but both players immediately resumed their aggression. Al-Hatmi whistled again, and this time showed the yellow card only to Safuwan, who had already been cautioned earlier for arguing with the referee. The crowd roared in fury as the Lions defender was sent for an early shower.
The decision sparked an angry confrontation as the aggrieved Lions surround the referee, but when tempers cooled, Shahdan Sulaiman sent his free-kick in, and amid the sea of legs, newly-naturalised midfielder Song Ui-young somehow found his aim to slam home the equaliser.
Both Yoshida and his Indonesian counterpart Shin Tae-yong confronted Al-Hatmi during half-time. as both benches surrounded the beleaguered referee to voice their displeasure. When the Lions emerged from the break, they changed to a four-man defence line, with wing-backs Zulqarrnaen and Nur Adam Abdullah moving further back in assist Hariss and Irfan.
Ikhsan and Faris duly came on on the hour mark, together with right winger Shawal Anuar. But when Irfan was shown his red card seven minutes later, it had seemed as if the tie would slip away from the Lions.
But Shahdan had other ideas, as he curled a beautiful free-kick into the top left corner in the 74th minute to give the hosts an lead against the run of play, as fans rose to their feet and applauded the Lions' never-say-die attitude.
Indonesia, however, also refused to give up, and were rewarded for their persistence when they breached the Lions defence again in the 87th minute as Pratama Arhan reacted quickest to Hassan's save from Witan to score, albeit in a suspiciously offside position.
Faris Ramli misses chance to win right at the end of regulation
Incredibly, the drama was not over in regulation time, as Shawal was tripped by Pratama in the penalty box just before the 90 minutes were up. Al-Hatmi pointed to the spot, up stepped Faris to seal the match, but his low shot was well-saved by Nadeo Argawinata, to the huge groans from the crowd.
So it was on to extra-time, and Indonesia struck immediately, as Shawal could only clear a goalbound shot into goal under pressure from Irfan Jaya.
And as Hassan made numerous saves to keep the Lions' hopes alive, Egy Maulana extinguished them when he added a fourth goal for Indonesia in the 105th minute from close range.
Hassan was dismissed late on for scything down Irfan Jaya. But as the Lions slumped to the ground, defeated and utterly spent, they could at least hold their heads high. Judging by the loud cheers at the end of the match, they may have lost the game, but they may very well have won the fans' hearts.
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