SINGAPORE — They may have recently made strides forward after years of mediocrity, but the Singapore national football team remain a work in progress – and still many steps away from the ultimate dream of reaching the World Cup Finals.
On Tuesday (15 October) night at the National Stadium, the Lions were adventurous in attack and battling in defence against Uzbekistan in their 2022 World Cup qualifier – and still lost 1-3.
While the result was not unexpected – given that the Uzbeks were ranked 88th in the world while the Lions are at 157th – it demonstrated the stark gulf which the Lions have to bridge in order to even advance to the next World Cup Asian Zone qualifying stage.
For the Uzbeks – and the group favourites Saudi Arabia which beat the Lions 3-0 last Thursday in Buraidah – had just that extra class in finishing and defending, as well as a devastating counter-attack that shredded the Lions defence on numerous occasions.
Lions coach: we played well, but not enough
It left Lions head coach Tatsuma Yoshida crestfallen during the post-match media conference.
“I’m disappointed only in the result, not the performances of my boys. We played well, but it was clearly not enough,” he said.
“It’s the little details which we have to keep working at. We have to start our matches better, we have to stay at a high intensity for the whole match, and we cannot give our opponents scoring opportunities.
“I took over in May, and I have seen much improvement among the team. But we have to accept the result, and keep working together.”
The result, coupled with Saudi Arabia’s surprise 0-0 draw with Palestine, meant Singapore slipped down from third to fourth in the Group D table, level on four points with Palestine but with an inferior goal difference. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, lead the table with six points from three matches, one point ahead of the Saudis.
Uzbeks started strong for early goal
In front of 12,547 fans, the Lions trotted out a 4-5-1 formation, with captain Hariss Harun pushed up from his usual defensive midfield role to a more advanced position behind lone strike Ikhsan Fandi.
Yet, from the opening whistle, Uzbekistan signalled their intent with some robust pressing high up the pitch, forcing the Lions on the back foot straight away.
Just when the hosts thought they had weathered the early storm, they conceded a free-kick on the edge of the area on the left flank in the 15th minute.
Uzbek captain Odil Ahmedov silenced the crowd with a superb, dipping shot that curled past the outstretched arm of goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud for a deserved 1-0 lead.
Even as the Lions stepped up their intensity in search of the equaliser, they found the Uzbeks to be just a step quicker to the ball. Their flanks were often left exposed for the Uzbeks to hit back swiftly on the counter-attack, and had Uzbekistan’s forwards been more accurate on two of such forays, they would have had a comfortable lead by half-time.
Yet, the Lions persevered and were rewarded on the stroke of half time.
They had already a huge shout for penalty for a handball infringement, but were denied by the Chinese referee Shen Yinhao.
Just moments later, Shahdan Sulaiman was afforded spaced on the right flank, and the midfielder sent in a beautifully-weighted cross for Ikhsan Fandi, who thumped an equally wondrous header past goalkeeper Eldorbek Suyunov.
On the back foot again in 2nd half
While the Lions went into the half-time break to a standing ovation from the fans, they were again put on the back foot by Uzbekistan when the match restarted. Six minutes into the second half, left-back Farrukh Sayfiev sprinted past the Lions’ back line, and crossed for an unmarked Edlor Shomurodov to leap high and head in their second goal.
Again, the Lions showed commendable spirit in continuing to attack, with Ikhsan running himself to the ground before being replaced by Gabriel Quak. Yet, their lack of nous to unlock the crowded Uzbek defence was also evident to the fans, who were nonetheless appreciative of their efforts.
With the Lions tiring fast in stoppage time, the outstanding Shomurodov latched on to a through ball from Ikromjon Alibaev to score his side’s third goal.
The Lions will next face Yemen away on 19 November. With only one home match left in their remaining four qualifying matches – and that is against the formidable Saudis – they should now focus on finishing third or fourth in the group to advance to the next stage of the 2023 Asian Cup qualification.