SINGAPORE — After three consecutive group-stage exits, four-time AFF Suzuki Cup champions Singapore finally put an end to those crushing disappointments as they booked a final-four spot at this year's tournament even before they registered a modest 2-0 win over Timor-Leste at the National Stadium on Tuesday (14 December).
While the scoreline and performance were nothing to crow about against the regional minnows, the fact that that the Lions could look forward to their first semi-final appearance since 2012 gave the 8,518-strong fans reason to cheer and be optimistic about their progress under head coach Tatsuma Yoshida.
The Japanese bristled when asked during the post-match media conference whether he was unhappy with his players unable to register a big scoreline. He said, "If this was the Japan or South Korean national team, and not the Singapore team, then maybe the scoreline was not good enough.
"Of course there are areas we are not satisfied about, but I'm proud of the players. Yes, I'm proud of them."
With Thailand beating the Philippines 2-1 in the earlier kick-off, both the Lions and the War Elephants will advance out of Group A as the top two sides, with both earning the full nine points from their opening three matches.
Third-placed Philippines have three points from three games, and will not be able to overtake the top two sides with only one game left to play. Thailand and Singapore will face each other in their final match on Saturday to decide which team can advance as group winners.
Prior to the match, Singapore were hit with news of mercurial forward Gabriel Quak suffering a recurrence of a shoulder injury he sustained during the Lions' training stint in Dubai last month. The 2020 Singapore Premier League Player of the Year will undergo arthroscopic and labral repair surgery this week, and is thus ruled out of the competition.
In his absence, Yoshida recalled Shawal Anuar to the starting line-up. Newly naturalised midfielder Song Ui-young was also back among the starting XI, while Hami Syahin and Adam Swandi earned the nod to begin the match ahead of Zulfahmi Arifin and Faris Ramli.
And it took the hosts just four minutes to open their scoring accounts against the overmatched Timor-Leste players. Shawal's cross from the right flank pinballed around the penalty box and eventually found an unmarked Adam who swept the ball into the bottom right corner of the net.
With the backline capably marshalled by Safuwan Baharudin - who reached his 100-cap milestone in the match - the Lions could afford to stroke the ball around and wait patiently for the next opportunity to materialise against their weary opponents, who were playing their fourth match in 10 days.
However, with each passing minute without adding to their one-goal advantage, the crowd got increasingly restless, especially after Ikhsan Fandi hit the woodwork when put through by Shawal in the 52nd minute.
Finally, the Timor players' resistance was broken again in the 70th minute, following a free-kick from the left flank by substitute Shahdan Sulaiman. After the defence failed to clear the initial cross, Safuwan reacted quickest to prod the ball towards Shakir Hamzah, who calmly slotted home.
Judging from the loud applause from the fans at the final whistle, they were satisfied with the result and, more importantly, the fact that the Lions could afford to relax in their final Group A match against Thailand, having already achieved their semi-final target.
Man of the Match Shakir hopes his teammates will be motivated to beat Thailand in their final group match on Saturday, and finish as group winners to try and avoid defending champions Vietnam in the semi-finals.
"For us, it is the match we want to play, because we have not been able to beat Thailand for the past few years," he said during the post-match conference. "But I believe that if we are united as a team, we can clinch the first place in the group and hopefully avoid Vietnam."
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