Instant impact by Fandi, Sundram

Instant impact by Fandi, Sundram
Sundram (left) and Fandi have forged a successful coaching partnership.

In just over six months, Singapore's national football team have gone from falling at the first hurdle of the ASEAN Football Federation Championship to earning a draw with Asian powerhouses Japan to top their second-round 2018 World Cup qualifying group.

From going six months without a victory, they are now unbeaten in four games in the past month - with their 0-0 stalemate away to mighty Japan on Tuesday night capping a dramatic turnaround in fortunes for the Lions.

Just what has changed in six months?

Players point to the addition of local legends Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy to the coaching set-up as a key reason. The pair add confidence and an assuring presence in the dressing room.

The presence of both Sundram and Fandi has been crucial in this period, said captain Hariss Harun.

He added: "Having two big legends like them around is a big motivation for us. When they pass on instructions and explain things to us, you can see how much everyone listens and wants to work their socks off for them.

"We know our results at the Suzuki Cup were disappointing and this is part of trying to make amends. We believe we still are a good team and despite the criticism, we've stuck together and worked hard and showed a lot of fighting spirit in the past few months."

Fandi and Sundram, who have masterminded Malaysian Super League and Malaysian FA Cup triumphs in recent years, have been assisting national coach Bernd Stange since the end of last month.

Together, the triumvirate have overseen wins against Bangladesh, Brunei and Cambodia. Then came the shock result against world No. 54 Japan, ranked more than 100 places higher than the Lions and widely expected to inflict a heavy defeat on the visitors at the Saitama Stadium on Tuesday.

While goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud produced several outstanding saves to frustrate the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, the battling performance by Singapore bore the hallmarks of past matches by the LionsXII - trained formerly by Sundram and currently helmed by Fandi.

Both were stylish forwards in their heyday but as tacticians have preached the importance of hard work and defensive solidity in their teams.

The level of commitment from the players - attacker Khairul Amri and defender Baihakki Khaizan both succumbed to cramps - was exceptional, added Sundram.

"The boys worked very hard, non-stop running up and down. Tactically, they came back and kept their position and did not allow space and time for Japan to penetrate," he said post-match.

Singapore lead Group E with four points, one ahead of Syria, whom they next play on Sept 3 in Oman.

Japan are fourth with one point for new coach Vahid Halilhodzic, on his competitive debut. The Bosnian may already be under pressure but nevertheless singled out Izwan for praise.

"He saved six or seven goals. I've never seen a goalkeeper stop that many shots before," he said after the match.

The Japanese media, having witnessed their national team fail to retain the Asian Cup and fall at the quarter-final stage to the United Arab Emirates in this year's edition, were unforgiving in their assessment of the Blue Samurai.

But they and social media showered praise on Izwan, whose heroics have inspired a host of online memes that have gone viral.

The Mainichi Shimbun reported that Izwan, who "commanded his area superbly all night", halted a team who had scored 11 goals in their last three matches while The Japan Times called it an "inspired performance" from the stopper.

Noted a delighted Fandi: "We deserved at least a draw.

"I thought the tactic was right. Myself and Sundram are trying to assist the coach (Stange).

"Hopefully, we can carry this momentum on to the next level."

This article was first published on June 18, 2015.
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