Lions face Japan without best player

Lions face Japan without best player
Singapore defender Safuwan Baharudin (right) in action against Cambodia last Friday, when he scored twice in a 4-0 win.
PHOTO: Reuters

It will be the toughest opponents that Singapore national football coach Bernd Stange has faced in his two years in charge and the German has already been dealt a blow by the absence of a key player.

Today, the Lions face Japan in their 2018 World Cup qualifying Asian Group E clash at the Saitama Stadium in Saitama, Japan, without Safuwan Baharudin, after the 23-year-old pulled out of the squad for personal reasons.

In Stange's 25 games in charge of the Lions (154th), the highest-ranked opponents he encountered were China (79th), who thumped Singapore 6-1.

As he prepares his side to do battle against the Blue Samurai, who are ranked 52nd in the world, Safuwan's absence will be a big blow.

Playing as an attacking midfielder, he excelled in Singapore's opening World Cup qualifier last Thursday when he scored twice in a 4-0 win over Cambodia.

"Our best player will not be available to play," Stange rued. "It is a big blow for us. But the qualification is like a marathon and we will have suspensions, injuries and unexpected matters. But, if you want to achieve something (in these qualifiers), we have to deal with it."

Centre-back Baihakki Khaizan is expected to replace Safuwan in the starting line-up, with Zulfahmi Arifin pushed into midfield.

With Japan coming into the fixture after a 4-0 drubbing of Iraq in a friendly last Friday in Yokohama, Stange has called for his players to be on high alert.

"We have to play without fear and pressure," said the German.

"In such matches, we have to avoid silly mistakes and our game plan would be to stay compact in defence.

"Japan will keep possession, so it means we will have a defensive plan. We have players for an effective counter-attacking plan."

Vahid Halilhodzic, who took over as Japan's national coach in March, has led the team to three wins in as many games, with the Asian powerhouses scoring 11 times and conceding just once.

With Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa, AC Milan attacker Keisuke Honda and Southampton defender Maya Yoshida all certain to start against Singapore , the quality on display at the 63,000-capacity stadium could be too hot for his men to handle, Stange admitted.

"If the quality of your opponent is much, much higher, you need luck and unbelievable commitment," he said. "A second or third division team can beat the top teams in Cup competition but that is seldom.

"It would be a world sensation if we can take a draw against Japan."

Syria and Afghanistan complete the group.

This article was first published on June 16, 2015.
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