SINGAPORE — On paper, it may seem like a decent result for the Singapore national football team - a 2-2 draw against a side ranked 20 spots above them in the Fifa world rankings.
But the Lions have to be kicking themselves for not getting the win, and two extra points, in their opening 2022 World Cup Asian Zone Group D qualifying match against Yemen at the National Stadium on Thursday (5 September).
For they crafted a flurry of chances throughout the match with impressive, intelligent movements, and dominated possession against the outclassed Yemen players, who offered little other than plenty of niggling fouls.
Yet, they allowed Yemen two shots on goal in the first half through defensive lapses -- and the visitors gleefully punished them with their two goals.
It was a harsh lesson for the Lions, and head coach Tatsuma Yoshida could not hide his disappointment at not getting a victory in his first competitive match in charge.
"Yes, we should have won," he said in the post-match media conference. "Our first half was almost perfect: the boys played according to plan, and with the right attitude and energy.
"But we didn't take our early chances to score. And at the end of the half, we had problems transitioning from attack to defence, and Yemen had the players to counter-attack and score."
Goals conceded due to ‘lack of experience’
Nevertheless, the Japanese refused to single out any culprits for the defensive lapses, preferring to say that his team "lacked the experience" to keep Yemen quiet for the whole match.
And he is adamant that the back-line he trotted out -- which included 34-year-old veteran Baihakki Khaizan, selected for his 135th cap ahead of Irfan Fandi -- is capable of carrying out his high-defensive-line strategy.
When asked if the same back-four will feature in the Lions' next World Cup qualifying match against Palestine on Tuesday, Yoshida said, "Yes, provided that their conditions (after tonight's match) are all right."
While the Lions' defence has plenty to improve on, their attack has improved dramatically in the three months under Yoshida. Players were alert to one another's movements off the ball, and Yemen's defence line was repeatedly shredded by rapid exchanges and astute running by the forwards.
No wonder Yemen coach Sami Hasan Al-Hadi sounded relieved that his side got one point from this away match.
"This Singapore team surprised me with their quality. We had to work so hard to get the draw," he said.
Strong start to the match for Lions
Indeed, from the opening whistle, the Lions pressed hard, bossed the midfield and linked up smartly in the final third to create openings in the resolute Yemen defence.
Several half-chances arrived quickly, but were spurned by wayward finishings from Faris Ramli and Shahdan Sulaiman. Still, their vibrant movement allowed them to dominate proceedings, much to the approval of the 7,018-strong fans.
Ikhsan Fandi, a constant thorn among the Yemen defence, had already gone close with an acrobatic bicycle kick in the 26th minute when he pounced again a minute later after some sterling work down the left flank.
A clever backheel by Faris released left-back Shakir Hamzah, who sent an inch-perfect cross towards Ikhsan, who eluded his marker to head home and give the Lions the lead.
Buoyed by their one-goal lead and dominance in possession, the Lions pressed on in search of a second goal. But Yemen suddenly sprang to life in the 34th minute and took advantage of a rare defensive lapse.
Right winger Ahmed Al-Sarori put in a deep cross which eluded both Singapore’s central defenders, and landed in the path of an unmarked Abdulwasea Al-Matari, who slammed home the equaliser.
Things went from bad to worse for the Lions just before half-time. This time the two centre-backs were at fault for letting Yemen beat their offside trap with a deft lob from Mohammed Salem, which released Mohsen Mohammed Hasan, who product another lob over goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud into goal.
Quick second-half equaliser
Yemen were 2-1 in front at halftime with their only two shots on goal, and the Lions returned to the pitch after the break intent on making quick amends to the scoreline.
They succeeded in the 51st minute, when Ikhsan found space in the left flank and sped into box for a crisp shot at goal. Yemen goalkeeper Salem Saeed blocked his shot, but Faris was on hand to thump in the rebound.
Play became scrappy from then onwards, and the Lions were unable to come up with the winner despite creating further opportunities, and had to settle for a point.
With tougher opponents such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan to come in the group, they will need to quickly improve their defensive nous.
Otherwise, Yoshida provided another solution, saying, “We have to take our chances and score. Then we will be all right.”