It is fairly uncommon for an opening group match to be labelled an all-or-nothing decider, but tonight's AFC Under-23 Championship qualifier between the Laos Under-22s and Singapore Under-22s is just that.
Singapore Under-22 coach Richard Bok knows that with powerhouses China the hot favourites to top Group J and minnows Mongolia almost certainly set to be the whipping boys, it will be a high-stakes showdown with the hosts for the right to finish runners-up, and have the chance to advance to the AFC Under-23 Championships in Qatar next year.
Bok has set a six-point target from the three games in the group, which will give the Singapore side a good chance of finishing as one of the five best runners-up from the 10 groups that will also advance to the championships proper.
Bok was non-committal about his starting 11 yesterday.
He could deploy versatile forward Irfan Fandi Ahmad as a centre back alongside Amirul Adli as he looks for a precious clean sheet tonight, something they have managed just once in their last six international matches.
"Irfan is aggressive and wins the high balls. He provides physical presence at the back and also contributes in our set-plays," said Bok.
If Irfan can steady the ship at the back, it will be left to the likes of Iqbal Hussain and Adam Swandi to unlock the Laos defence in the final third, and Bok plans to attack the hosts right from the start.
"I want our boys to take the game to Laos, we can't sit back," said the 45-year-old.
"Laos are hosts and they will be keen to get a good result in front of home fans.
"We have to surprise them.
UP FOR GRABS
"Looking at the group, China are the powerhouses and favourites to top our group. But second-place is up for grabs and our first match against Laos would be key. We need the full three points."
Compared to Singapore, Laos have more players who are regulars with the senior national team, namely defender Ketsada Souksavanh, and midfielders Vilayout Sayyabounsou, Khonesavanh Sihavong, Keoviengphet Liththideth and Tiny Bounmalay.
Said Bok: "I saw Laos at a tournament in Brunei last year and, like most ASEAN teams, they have speedy players when they like to utilise on the wings.
"They also have a big striker whom we need to cope with. We need to defend well, get close to him, and also prevent balls from getting to him.
"We have to win this match to stand a good chance to progress, and qualification is important to provide more opportunities for Singapore to play with and learn from the best teams in Asia.
"The boys know what they have to do, morale is good and it all boils down to how they react and respond in this crucial match."
PROBABLE SINGAPORE U-22 LINE-UP: Zulfairuuz Rudy, Faris Azienuddin, Amirul Adli, Irfan Fandi Ahmad, Zakir Samsudin, Adam Swandi, Anumanthan Mohan Kumar, Afiq Mat Noor, Fareez Farhan, Shameer Aziq, Iqbal Hussain.
This article was first published on March 27, 2015.
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