SINGAPORE — Singapore's national Under-22 team got their Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Asian Cup qualifying campaign off to a disappointing start, when they needed a last-gasp equaliser to avoid an embarrassing defeat by 10-man minnows Timor Leste in a 2-2 draw at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Monday (25 October).
Against the weakest team in their qualifying Group H – the other teams being defending champions South Korea and the Philippines – the Young Lions fell behind in the first half before a contentious red card decision for Timor Leste that proved the key flashpoint of the match.
This was regarded as a must-win game for Singapore, given the two tougher teams coming up. Timor Leste, for all their hard running, looked vulnerable in set-pieces due to their players' lack of height.
Not surprisingly, the Young Lions found most joy via corners and free-kick routines, and after captain Jacob Mahler came close in the 24th minute when his header from a corner went just wide, Singapore took the lead 10 minutes later via another corner.
Joel Chew's in-swinging corner was only half cleared by the Timor Leste defence, and Glenn Kweh was on hand to poke the ball in through a sea of legs.
Yet after taking a hard-earned lead, the Young Lions committed two defensive mistakes and Timor Leste took a shock lead. In the 39th minute, an innocuous-looking corner somehow squirmed through the entire Singapore defence and reached Elias Joao Mesquita at the far post, who gleefully tucked the ball in.
Three minutes later, a botched Singapore throw-in routine on the right saw Timor Leste break suddenly, and the ball reached an unmarked Paulo Domingos Freitas, who easily slotted home to stun the 953-strong crowd into silence.
Yet, in the aftermath of that goal, Freitas appeared to taunt the crowd with provocative gestures before Singapore could restart, and Saudi Arabian referee Majed Mohamed Alshamrani brandished the red card to the striker's disbelief.
It meant the visitors came on in the second half in no mood to score any more goals, and focused on frustrating Singapore with long injury delays amid resolute defending.
And they almost succeeded in registering a shock win, as the Young Lions huffed and puffed, but struggled to land the final punch. Goal attempts went narrowly wide, and the partisan crowd were groaning with disapproval.
Deep into stoppage time, however, the Young Lions launched a final attack, and the cross from the right finally managed to reach Jordan Emaviwe, a defender pushed into the frontline to bolster the attack, and he made no mistake with a crisp strike, much to the relief of the players and fans.
The Young Lions will next face the Philippines on Thursday, before finishing their Group H games against South Korea on Sunday.
The Koreans got off to a winning start, beating the Philippines 3-0 in their opening tie at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
A total of 11 groups will contest the U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers, with the group winners and four best second-placed teams set to advance to the final stage. The U-23 Asian Cup will be held in Uzbekistan in June 2022.
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