SINGAPORE — It says a lot that the only gripes heard around the AFF Suzuki Cup venues have been about non-football issues.
Amid strict safe management measures due to the ongoing pandemic, fans complained about the lack of food-and-beverage sales, the ban on drums and other musical instruments, and the lack of atmosphere as they were seated apart - all despite paying a premium adult ticket price of $25. Outrageous!
Seriously, if these are the only complaints, then the Singapore national team must be doing something right on the football pitch.
Two wins and the maximum six points from the Lions' opening two Group A matches have fuelled a healthy dose of optimism among fans that they can finally emerge from the doldrums of the past decade, and advance to the semi-finals for the first time since 2012.
But before the die-hards get too far ahead of themselves, it should be said that the Lions have merely beaten limited opponents in Myanmar and the Philippines. Both teams were severely rusty after their domestic leagues were suspended due to COVID-19 and, in Myanmar's case, political unrest.
Nonetheless, it is a pleasant departure from the crushing disappointments of Singapore's past three Suzuki Cup campaigns, in which they promised much but delivered next to nothing after crashing out in the group stage each time.
This time though, the Lions looked vibrant in attack and resilient in defence, and the two victories should at least give them enough confidence not to collapse in their two remaining group matches.
Players convinced by Yoshida's playing philosophy
So what went right? Many would point towards the most obvious reason: coach Tatsuma Yoshida.
This is the 47-year-old's first major tournament in charge, despite the Japanese being in the job since May 2019. The pandemic upended much of the international football schedule, but it has ironically given Yoshida enough time to implement his playing philosophy on the national team.
This was crucial. Yoshida did not arrive in Singapore with a stellar coaching resume, but was hired for his belief in playing progressive football - with all the modern stylings of high pressing, high tempo and controlled possession.
Such a style of football demands a lot from the players, both mentally and physically, and it takes time to hone them into tip-top shape to play this way. The pandemic disruptions have inadvertently given Yoshida that extra time, and he needed all of it to to refine his tactics, as the Lions endured a six-match winless run before the Suzuki Cup.
Veteran defender Safuwan Baharudin, who was one of a handful of Lions in the current squad who played in the victorious 2012 Suzuki Cup campaign, gave an insight into the difference between the tactics of Yoshida and those of Raddy Avramovic, the coach of that 2012 side.
"When we played in 2012, it was all about getting the ball quickly from the back to the front, and then defending for the whole 90 minutes, essentially hoping for the best," the 30-year-old said after the Philippines win on Wednesday (8 December).
"But coach Tatsuma has given us the confidence to play the kind of progressive football that we never thought we can. These two wins have certainly given us belief that our playing style works."
Considering Yoshida's heavily-accented English, it is to his immense credit that he was able to get his ideas across so clearly to the Singapore players, who also deserve plaudits for carrying out their coach's instructions effectively in their two matches. There was little confusion among the ranks, with each player understanding his role in both attack and defence, and reacting with swift precision.
It was a world of difference compared to the murky days of lifeless, aimless football under former head coaches Bernd Stange and V. Sundramoorthy after Avramovic's departure. Progress, indeed.
Still some distance away from being the finished product
Nevertheless, the Lions are still some distance away from being the finished product. In both of their Suzuki Cup matches so far, there were sloppy passages towards the end, when legs got tired amid all the incessant pressing.
The Filipinos nearly took advantage as they poured forward in search of their equaliser, and the Lions endured a tense final 10 minutes, when the vast experience of goalkeeper Hassan Sunny was key in marshalling the overworked defence.
Both Yoshida and Safuwan alluded to the need to better manage the later parts of the match, although they also believe that their successful resistance against the Filipinos can be an important turning point.
Better service to lone striker Ikhsan Fandi would also be welcome, as the 22-year-old was often too isolated up front to be of much effect.
In both cases, it boiled down to the Lions midfield needing to provide more protection and possession. Yoshida rotated his midfielders for the first two matches, presumably to keep them fresh ahead of more crucial games, but it brought about uncertainty as the players struggled to link up smoothly.
Still work to do to confirm semi-final berth
So are the Lions capable of more than just a Suzuki Cup semi-final appearance? Can they actually be considered contenders or even - whisper it quietly - favourites?
Well, playing at home helps. Also, the fact that most of the players have been playing regular domestic football amid the pandemic gives them an advantage in match sharpness compared to the more COVID-ravaged countries.
But it is still a big leap to put the Lions in the bracket of favourites Thailand and Vietnam, who enjoy a vast array of top-tier talents within their squads. They have also been consistently competitive throughout the past decade, building up the intangible know-how in dealing with tournament knock-out football while the Lions licked their wounds from early exits.
As it is, Singapore still have work to do to confirm their semi-final berth. They will next play minnows Timor-Leste on Tuesday (14 December) before facing the Thais on Saturday.
On paper, they should beat Timor-Leste handily, and if the Philippines lose to Thailand on the same day, that should essentially assure the Lions of their semi-final berth.
In reality, it may not be that simple. Timor-Leste trotted out an ultra-defensive formation against Thailand on Sunday, kept the scoreline respectable in a 0-2 loss, and are likely to do the same against Singapore. The hosts will need plenty of patience and precision.
Then comes the Thailand clash, and there has been debate on how the Lions should approach the match if they are already assured of their last-four place: Should Singapore send a second-string side to keep the key players fresh for the semi-finals, or should they play their strongest line-up to try and finish as group winners - and possibly avoid Vietnam in the semis?
So many scenarios swirling among Lions fans, amid this surge of optimism. Full credit to the Lions for their battling performances to silence the detractors, but their next steps are even more crucial if they want to maintain this newfound goodwill among the long-suffering supporters. This is no time to be complacent.
And one thing is for sure: they would be more than happy if all the gripes they hear at this Suzuki Cup are about the stadium atmosphere.
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