Youthful Lions stun Syria to lift Asian Cup qualification hopes
Singapore 2-1 Syria
(Khairul Amri 62, Gabriel Quak 81’) (Reja Rafe 89’)
By Kenneth Tan
SINGAPORE, 15 October 2013: The Singapore national football team re-ignited their hopes of making it into the 2015 AFC Asian Cup after a superb 2-1 win over nearest rivals Syria in the Group A qualifier.
Two second-half goals from Khairul Amri and Gabriel Quak respectively were enough for the Lions to claim the scalp of the Middle Eastern nation in front of 3,012 fans, although the visitors did pull a late goal back.
Singapore coach Bernd Stange continued with his strategy of a largely youthful starting eleven which included a total of seven Under-23 players, in view of the upcoming SEA Games.
The only change from the Laos game was the inclusion of captain Shahril Ishak who came in for the injured Shakir Hamzah.
Hafiz filled in for Shakir at leftback, while Shahril was deployed upfront with Shahfiq Ghani, Adam Swandi and Khairul Amri as the supporting cast.
That exuberant line-up nearly paid dividends as the Lions started the first 15 minutes with all guns blazing.
The first opportunity came just after 2 minutes on the clock. Zulfahmi Arifin sent a superb long freekick into the box, but Hariss’s resulting header was not strong enough to trouble Syria keeper Mosab Balhous.
Eight minutes later, they threatened through yet another deadball. A hanging Baihakki Khaizan freekick was headed across goal by his defensive partner Safuwan Baharudin, but Shahril was unable to nod it in at the far post.
Stange’s men continued to show some delightful interchange of play in midfield, with Shahril scuffing another two close-range opportunities.
That adventurous approach was always going to take a toll on the home side as the Syrians began to assert themselves into the game.
Their first chance came on 14 minutes when Ahmad Al Douni took down the ball straight from a goal kick, but his fierce left-footed shot was superbly tipped around the post by Hassan Sunny.
Al Douni found himself clear in the box 13 minutes later, but Hassan proved to be the foil again with a superb closedown.
The Syrian number 9 could have been third time lucky on 41 minutes, but his first-time shot from a Mahmoud Al Mawas cutback struck the post and went out of play.
There was one last scare of the half when Sanharib Malik’s cross found Omar Kharbin free in the box. Fortunately, the latter could only slam into the side netting.
After the break, the visitors continued to pile forward with Al Douni just failing to get a touch on Al Mawas’s cross-shot just in front of goal.
With the tide seemingly turning against the Lions, coach Stange decided to switch things around. Shahdan Sulaiman was brought on for the tiring Adam, while Shaiful Esah came on for Shahfiq.
As a result of the second change, Hafiz pushed up to cover Shahfiq’s position with Shaiful taking up his favoured leftback position.
And that move proved to be a treat as the Lions duly scored just after the hour mark.
After the Syrian defence fail to clear their lines, Hafiz pushed forward and drilled a superb ball across goal which evaded Balhous en route to Amri who could make no mistakes from less than six yards out.
Buoyed by that goal, the Lions continued to push forward. They could have scored again on 70 minutes but Hafiz dwelled too long on the shot.
Meanwhile at the back, Baihakki and Safuwan had to stay alert to close down Malki after a dangerous ball in from the left.
By this time, goalscorer Amri was knackered with coach Stange reacting by bringing on Gabriel Quak as his replacement for the last 10 minutes. Just like his earlier substitutions, it simply clicked like a switch on the lamp.
Within seconds, the 22-year-old latched on to a Hariss through ball on the right, sprinted into the box before coolly opening up his body to curl a superb effort into the bottom low corner.
That sent the Singapore fans into dreamland although they had to survive some Syrian onslaught in the final few minutes.
Subsitute Reja Rafe pulled one back on 89 minutes through a clean low shot past Hassan after riding a couple of challenges just outside the box.
Al Douni could have equalised matters two minute into injury time, but the excellent Hassan produced a strong hand to tip his effort wide.
That proved to be the last piece of action as Singapore registered their first points in their Asian Cup qualification campaign.
The three crucial points also helped them leapfrog Syria into third position in Group A, just one point off a qualifying spot.
Stange: It’s not a good result, it’s a very good result
There was no hiding Singapore coach Bernd Stange’s joy at the post-match press conference after achieving such an unexpected result.
“It’s not a good result, it’s a very good result!” he joked.
“You can see it was men against youngsters tonight, Syria have players playing all over the world e.g. Turkey, Iraq, Jordan etc. It was a hard fight, but we gave our all tonight and could not deliver more. I’m very proud that we could achieve such a performance and such a result.”
In particular, the boys’ attitude and tactical discipline was what pleased him most tonight.
“Tonight they showed the attitude to play for Singapore,” he shared.
“If you wear this shirt, you have to avoid big defeats like the one against China. They fought and gave everything. If you look at the kilometres which Shahril ran tonight, you have to respect that.
Also tactically we were very organized; we pressed them from the start and didn’t give too many chances to them.”
However, the German believes that his side still had lots of room for improvement.
“We are still not confident enough to play our style of football,” he analysed.
“This takes time and I cannot do it alone. But I’m still very happy that such a win will give us more confidence and power to follow our strategy.”
In conclusion, Stange remained non-committal about the Lions’ qualifications hopes.
“We do not have the strength at the moment,” he said.
“Baihakki and Hariss will be out for the next game due to suspension, while Safuwan is getting married next month. Also players like Afiq (Yunos) and Madhu (Mohana) may not be available due to National Service.”
Meanwhile his counterpart Anas Makhlouf was obviously a disappointed man.
“We had many chances to score but we didn’t take them,” he lamented.
“After Singapore scored through a counter-attack for the second goal, there was only a very short time for us to come back. They only had four chances and they scored two, thus it’s a pity for us (to lose this game).
And he admitted that qualification will be an arduous task for his side now.
“To lose this game makes it very difficult for us,” he assessed.
“My players played under pressure tonight and they can’t do what they have to do.”
The 40-year-old also gave a glowing assessment of the Lions.
“They’re a good young team who want to prove themselves,” he said.
“They play well as a team and I think they have the time to become even better.”
The Lions will take on Syria again in the next Group A qualifier away in Tehran, Iran. That game is scheduled for Friday, November 15.
Do continue to support the Lions in their quest to keep their Asian Cup dream alive!