SINGAPORE — So far, so good. Singapore made it two wins out of two at the AFF Suzuki Cup after two rapid-fire second-half goals lifted them to a hard-fought 2-1 win over the Philippines at the National Stadium on Wednesday (8 December).
The Filipinos, semi-finalists in the previous edition, were robust and physical but lacked the cutting edge up front, and the Lions had to be patient before eventually unlocking their opponents in the second half for their first win over their opponents since the 2012 tournament.
Coupled with their 3-0 win against Myanmar on Sunday, the Lions are on track to meet coach Tatsuma Yoshida's target of the full nine points against Myanmar, the Philippines and Timor-Leste before meeting their biggest Group A rivals Thailand on 18 December.
"Of course the three points make me happy, but I'm even happier with the way we played," the Japanese said after the match.
"In the first half, we stopped the Philippines from playing their game with our good positioning, our courage and our teamwork. Then after we got the two goals, they showed their great 'Singapore spirit' to hold on for the win. This victory can be a big moment for the boys."
Surprise changes to winning line-up
Yoshida sprang a few surprises in the starting line-up, notably leaving Shahdan Sulaiman and Song Ui-young - arguably the Lions' best players against Myanmar - on the bench, with M. Anumanthan and Zulfahmi Arifin taking their places.
Crucially, he also unleashed Gabriel Quak on the right flank for the first time at this tournament, in place of Shawal Anuar. And it was the Lion City Sailors stalwart who caused persistent problems for the Filipino defence, beginning with two half chances in the opening 10 minute.
Philippines goalkeeper Kevin Hansen had to be alert in saving Quak's first attempt, and he was also on hand to save a curling free-kick from Zulfahmi in the 21st minute. But he could only watch as Quak's cross from the right reached an unmarked Faris Ramli in the 25th minute, and could thank his lucky stars that the winger's spectacular overhead kick attempt went wide.
While the Filipinos offered stiff resistance in defence, they were blunt in attack despite fielding newly-naturalised forward Bienvenido Maranon, with Hassan Sunny requiring to make only one save in the opening half from a long-range shot from Oliver Bias on the stroke of half-time.
Quak, who was on the receiving end of several crunching tackles, was eventually substituted by Song on the hour mark, and almost immediately, the Lions went ahead.
A corner from the left reached defender Safuwan Baharudin, who had scored the opening goal against Myanmar, rose high to direct a header towards goal, and captain Hariss Harun darted through to head into goal, sparking off delirious celebrations among the 8,922-strong crowd.
Barely had the cheers died down among the fans when right wing-back Zulqarnaen Suzliman robbed Bias of the ball in the 63rd minute and went on a lung-bursting run down the flank. Looking up, he spotted the onrushing Faris on the opposite flank and launched a pin-point cross for his teammate to gratefully poke home.
Tense final moments as hosts held on
Stung by the two quick goals inside three minutes, the Filipinos poured forward and finally caused the Lions defence problems. They duly pulled a goal back in the 69th minute, with midfielder Amin Nazari glancing a corner kick into goal to the cheers of the small but vocal Philippines crowd.
That provided a nervous finish for Singapore, but despite a couple of tense moments - including a superb diving save by Hassan to deny Angel Guirado right at the death - the hosts stood firm to maintain their perch at the top of the Group A.
Philippines coach Stewart Hall lamented the "three minutes of madness" that cost his side the match, but insisted his team can still advance into the semi-finals.
"It looks like we would need at least two wins and a draw from our remaining matches, and I've seen enough from my team to believe that we can get the right results," the Englishman said.
In an earlier match, Myanmar bounced back from their defeat by Singapore to register a 2-0 win over Timor-Leste, courtesy of goals from Than Paing (14th minute) and Maung Maung Lwin (50th minute).
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