Khairul Amri scoring the lone goal with a header from a corner kick.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

After weathering a storm, after all the huffing and puffing, the Singapore national football team staggered across the finish line after landing a sucker punch right on the solar plexus of a dominant Afghanistan team.

The visitors at the National Stadium will feel hard done by after enjoying more possession and creating six clear chances but it is the Lions who scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 win to open up a four-point gap over their opponents in Group E of the World Cup qualifiers.

Japan (10 points) lead the standings after beating second-placed Syria (nine points) 3-0 last night.

Singapore are on seven points.

Given a massive vote of confidence last month in the form of a contract extension until next April, national teams head coach Bernd Stange could not coax the fluid passing football he advocates from his men as the patchy performance drew sighs and groans from the 7,128 crowd.

Instead, hopeful punts upfield and predictable set-pieces were all that the Lions could throw at Slaven Skeledzic's men, who impressed with their spirited running, aggressive ball-winning and effective combination play.

In the end, it was a dead ball that dealt the killer blow.

Winger Faris Ramli's 72nd-minute corner kick was the type of quality service that Khairul Amri was crying out for and the striker steered his header into the net for his 29th goal in 102 international appearances.

That was only the Lions' second attempt on target after Amri's fourth-minute free kick was easily gathered by Afghanistan goalkeeper Ovays Azizi.

With regulars Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin suspended, Singapore struggled in central midfield as Izzdin Shafiq and Hafiz Abu Sujad were overworked while Zulfahmi Arifin's passing and work-rate were erratic.

Elsewhere, skipper Shahril Ishak laboured around the pitch but his lack of games under Stange showed in a quiet display and the 31-year-old was taken off at half-time in favour of Faris.

Afghanistan could have won this fixture by a handsome score had their finishing been more precise.

The chief culprit was attacking midfielder Khaibar Amani.

He headed wide when he was left unmarked in the 43rd minute.

He also scuffed his shot in front of an open goal two minutes later and nodded over the bar from close range in the 61st.

Forward Faysal Shayesteh was the other big threat as his 36th-minute effort from 25 metres curled narrowly wide.

Most agonisingly of all, Afghanistan captain Djelaludin Sharitya's downward header in the 68th minute was hacked off the line by right-back Nazrul Nazari.

Midfielder Shabir Isoufi's similar effort was also denied on the line by the boot of Baihakki Khaizan.

The Lions' fate is still in their hands as the eight group winners and four best group runners-up will advance to the third round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia as well as the 2019 Asian Cup Finals in the United Arab Emirates.

Singapore will host cellar dwellers Cambodia at Kallang on Tuesday when Hariss and Safuwan will be available for selection after sitting out their bans.

And the Kallang faithful will not be so forgiving if this uninspired performance is repeated.

This article was first published on October 9, 2015.
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