Lions pull off 2-1 upset over Palestine, showing good progress under coach Yoshida

Singapore's Shakir Hamzah (left) celebrates with teammate Faris Ramli after scoring the opening goal against Palestine in their 2022 World Cup qualifying match at the Jalan Besar Stadium. (PHOTO: Football Association of Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Against an opponent ranked 60 spots higher in the Fifa world rankings, the Singapore national football team pulled off a gritty 2-1 upset win over Palestine to ignite their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday (10 September).

First-half goals from Shakir Hamzah and Safuwan Baharudin set the Lions on the path to a memorable win in front of a packed, 6,011-strong crowd, as they ran themselves to the ground in order to stop the physical Palestinians.

The win puts Singapore top of Group D of the Asian Zone qualifiers, with four points after two matches played. They had drawn 2-2 with Yemen at the National Stadium five days earlier.

Vibrant attack, disciplined defence

In getting the precious victory, the Lions also showed how well they are progressing under Tatsuma Yoshida, displaying a vibrant high-pressing attack in the first half and then some disciplined defending after the break to seal the Japanese coach’s first win in only his second competitive match in charge.

Singapore's Safuwan Baharudin (centre) wheels away after heading in the second goal in their 2022 World Cup qualifier against Palestine at the Jalan Besar Stadium. (PHOTO: Football Association of Singapore)

While Yoshida congratulated his charges for carrying out his tactics effectively and showing composure and focus to see off the Palestinians, captain Hariss Harun credited the coach for already turning the Lions’ fortunes around in the three months since he took over.

“Coach gives us clear instructions to carry out his plans during the matches, and the results are clear for all to see,” the midfielder said.

“I think everyone understands what he is supposed to do on the pitch, and to get this win against a tough opponent gives us the motivation to continue doing what the coach wants us to do.”

Palestine coach storms off media conference

While there were smiles all around the Singapore team for a job well done, Palestine coach Nouredine Ould Ali grumbled about the artificial pitch at the stadium, and said that his players were not in the best conditions to play after a long flight from Palestine following their surprise 2-0 win over Uzbekistan last Thursday.

And when asked by a Palestinian journalist why he still kept the same starting XI despite their earlier exertions, Ould Ali lost his temper, shouted at the journalist, and then stormed off the media conference.

His outburst underlined the importance of getting a win in the qualifying group, as a good placing in this group stage could mean an easier route to the 2023 Asian Cup, whose qualifying runs concurrently with this World Cup.

Singapore's Ikhsan Fandi (red jersey) tussles for the ball with Palestine's Abdallah Jaber in their 2022 World Cup qualifier at the Jalan Besar Stadium. (PHOTO: Football Association of Singapore)

Early pressing yields goal for Lions

Palestine were caught cold even before they had the chance to settle down, as the Lions pounced early on in the fourth minute, courtesy of their high pressing game.

A clearance was first charged down by Ikhsan Fandi, then a second was collectively blocked by Faris Ramli and Shakir. The ball eventually dropped nicely for Shakir, who took a touch before slamming it home.

It was reminiscent of their strong start against Yemen last Thursday. In that match, however, lapses in the Lions defence meant they trailed 1-2 at halftime.

And yet again, they cheaply gave Palestine their equaliser on 13 minutes, as they repeatedly failed to clear a corner by the visitors. The ball eventually found its way to forward Yaser Hamed, who stabbed home from close range.

This time though, the Lions regrouped more effectively, continuing to probe the overworked Palestine defence line while shoring up their own backline.

After a scrappy passage of play, they made their second breakthrough in the 39th minute, as Shahdan Sulaiman’s corner from the right was met by Safuwan, whose downward header bulleted into the bottom left corner of the net.

Holding on despite aggressive opponents

Stung after falling behind, Palestine came out from the half-time break piling on the aggression, and the match threatened to boil over on several occasions.

However, the Lions held on firmly, with Hariss and Yasir Hanapi outstanding in central midfield as they tamed their opponents and earned the roaring approval from the fans at the final whistle. The section of die-hards in the gallery stands even felt proud enough to lead the stadium in a stirring rendition of the National Anthem.

Next month will bring much tougher qualifying matches for Singapore – first a daunting away trip to group favourites Saudi Arabia, and then a tricky home tie against Uzbekistan.

Yet, with confidence coursing through the Lions, Yoshida said, “You can be sure we will be fully prepared against the two strong sides. I cannot predict what may happen, but we will be ready.”

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