The general consensus is that, to stand any chance of advancing into the semi-finals of the 2018 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, Singapore must win their two home group-stage matches.
On Friday (9 November) at the National Stadium, the Lions built a solid foundation for the region’s top football competition, beating a lacklustre Indonesia side 1-0 in front of a 30,783-strong crowd courtesy of a first-half goal by captain Hariss Harun.
The hard-fought victory broke a four-match winless run in the biennial competition that stretched all the way back to 26 November, 2014. Coincidentally, Hariss was also among the scorers in that 4-2 group-stage win over Myanmar.
Since then, the Lions have suffered through a prolonged slump, failing to reach the Suzuki Cup semi-finals in the last two editions. On Friday night though, they were feisty in midfield and composed in defence, effectively denying the visitors possession with their incessant pressing in the first half.
Fandi says team did their job
Interim national coach Fandi Ahmad prowled the sidelines, shouting instructions and encouragement throughout the game. When he arrived for his post-match media conference, he apologised for his hoarseness, but was emphatic with his assessment of the match, “Three points, that’s all that matters. We did our job.”
He added, “We cut off Indonesia’s supply line from the wings, and created at least three good scoring chances. We press them hard in the first half, according to our strategy. It was a good start, now we have to press on.”
Next up is another crucial match on 13 November, this time away in Bacolod to an improving Philippines side. With his side fading near the end of the match, and the Filipinos yet to start their campaign, will fitness be an issue for the Lions?
Fandi said, “I think the win will give us that boost to compete well against the Philippines. I know we were tired, but I expect their confidence to be high, as well as their willingness to fight through the tiredness. It’s all in the mind.”
Players willing to run themselves to the ground
The former national captain will need all his inspirational skills to cajole his limited team to greater heights in the competition. Still, it was evident in Friday’s win that his players were willing to execute his game plan and run themselves to the ground for the cause.
They excelled in the first half, with Hariss bossing the midfield and playmaker Faris Ramli in sparkling form, as he repeatedly sliced through Indonesia’s defence with nimble footwork and incisive passing.
As the Indonesian defenders were preoccupied with keeping Faris at bay, others benefitted. Right winger Yasir Hanapi managed to cut in and find himself wide open with only goalkeeper Andritany Ardhiyasa to beat in the ninth minute. However, his composure left him and his shot was too close to the custodian who palmed it away.
Nevertheless, the Lions’ early pressing meant that Indonesia could not settle down quickly enough, and after more probing runs by Faris and Gabriel Quak, the Lions’ finally took the lead in the 37th minute.
Quak managed to elude his defender on the right flank and sent in a beautifully weighted cross towards an onrushing Faris. The Indonesian defender’s headed clearance fell to an unmarked Hariss, who slammed the ball home to the biggest roar of the night from the Kallang crowd.
Holding firm in second half
Indonesia coach Bima Sakti rang the changes at the start of the second half, bringing on the speedy Riko Simanjuntak for the ineffective Irfan Jaya. As the Lions began to tire, it was left to the defenders to hold the fort, and they were solid in that respect, with goalkeeper Hassan Sunny calming the nerves with several superb catches from dangerous-looking crosses.
Increasingly frustrated, the Indonesian players resorted to wild tackles. Emotions threatened to boil over deep into stoppage time, when defender Putu Gede Juru Antara was sent off for a second bookable offence after he elbowed substitute Adam Swandi’s back, sending the forward tumbling out of the sidelines.
However, the Lions saw the game through, to the delight of the home fans. Tougher challenges lie ahead, with defending champions Thailand lying in wait in their final group match. But for now, they have a good foundation to build up a momentum for the month-long competition.
As for Indonesia, coach Bima had a terse answer to questions on his team’s hopes of making the semi-finals, “Beat Timor Leste. We have no choice but to do that.”
Thailand thrashed minnows Timor Leste 7-0 in the other Group B match, played in Bangkok. Striker Adisak Kraisorn ran riot with six goals, nearly equalling the tournament record for most goals scored by a single player in a match – seven by Singapore striker Noh Alam Shah against Laos in 2007.