In the end, it was a mountain far too high for this current Singapore national football team to scale.
Needing at least a draw in the daunting Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok to have any chance of advancing into the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup semi-finals, the Lions were instead well beaten 3-0 by a slick Thailand side, roared on by a 29,716-strong crowd on Sunday (25 November).
Coupled with the Philippines’ 0-0 draw against Indonesia in Jakarta, it means the Lions have failed to reach the semi-finals of Southeast Asia’s premier international football tournament for a third straight time. They have six points, while the Filipinos have eight and the Thais have 10. Only the top two sides advance from the group stage.
Thailand will play Malaysia in the two-legged semi-finals, while Philippines will face Vietnam.
Unity and purpose not enough for Lions
The last time Singapore managed to reach the Suzuki Cup semi-finals back in 2012, they went all the way to clinch their fourth AFF title, coincidentally in Bangkok. Yet, any optimism from that triumph were dashed in the 2014 and 2016 editions, as they struggled mightily under the unsuccessful coaching appointments of Bernd Stange and V. Sundram Moorthy.
While interim national coach and former football icon Fandi Ahmad has at least restored a sense of unity and purpose in the players, the young squad remain limited in their capabilities and big-match temperament.
Thailand, winners of the last two Suzuki Cups and undisputed regional kingpins, were always going to be the yardstick by which Singapore’s progress under Fandi will be judged. And the gulf in class showed, as the Thais had by far the better control of the match, and took their chances with aplomb.
“We conceded two early, sloppy goals, and it was hard to recover from then on,” Fandi said after the match. “But this is football, we have to learn from our mistakes and we will try again.”
Early goals conceded
The 56-year-old coach reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, after employing a two-striker set-up in the Lions’ 6-1 rout of Timor Leste in their previous group match. They started Sunday’s match the livelier of the two sides, pinning the Thais back in their own half and even creating a chance for striker Ikhsan Fandi in the seventh minute, which was well saved by Thai goalkeeper Chatchai Bootprom.
Despite the fine start, the Lions fell behind in the 12th minute after some shoddy defending at a corner, as Thai defender Pansa Hemviboon beat a poorly-executed offside trap to head home unmarked.
Shell-shocked by the early setback, the visitors’ attacking momentum deserted them as the Thais started to confidently spray passes towards their nippy wingers Nurul Sriyankem and Supachai Chaided.
And they extended their lead courtesy of another nightmarish piece of defending by the Lions. A long punt seemed harmless enough, until Zulqarnean Suzliman sliced his clearance, and Supachai capitalised to expertly control the ball and slam it home.
From then on, there was no way back from the Lions, as the Thais tightened their defence and stopped the Lions’ sporadic attacks without much fuss.
As the Lions poured forward in search of any scrap of a chance at goal, they were left exposed at the back, and in the 89th minute, the Thais counter-attacked successfully to set up striker Adisak Kraisorn to score their third goal.
Too much to overcome in Bangkok
In the end, despite Fandi’s fighting words throughout the Lions’ campaign, his inspirational qualities were unable to drag them past the impressive Thais. Singapore will rue their earlier group-stage loss to the fast-improving Philippines, which gave them too much to overcome in Bangkok.
Still, as they return home to lick their wounds, they will be wondering how they can eventually bridge the gap to the Thais, who are dominant even without their top players such as Theerathon Bunmanthan, Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda for this tournament.
With Vietnam, Philippines and even Malaysia improving too, the Lions can ill afford to stagnate again, like they did after their last Suzuki Cup triumph.