Momentary lapse mars otherwise solid game against Syria, 0-1 loss puts S'pore 2nd in table
On paper, it may seem like a creditable result - a narrow loss to a superior Middle Eastern side.
However, as Singapore left the neutral venue of Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat, Oman, it was more a case of what could have been than the Lions revelling in the result.
The 0-1 loss left them second in Group E of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and still with a chance to make it to the 2019 Asian Cup.
The latter is a feat Singapore have never achieved except, in 1984, when they qualified automatically as hosts.
But looking back, the Lions felt that they could have at least walked away with a point.
None more so than Khairul Amri, the team's leading frontman, who could have bagged a hat-trick had he been less profligate.
"As the team's striker, it is hard to swallow, especially in a crucial match. But that is football for you, sometimes you need a bit of luck," he told The Straits Times.
"If I had taken those chances, we would have got the deserved point. We did well and we certainly did not deserve to lose."
Singapore limited the Syrians to just one shot on target in the first half. They could have even nicked a victory had Hafiz Abu Sujad and Amri converted gilt-edged chances in the opening 45 minutes.
The best chance of the night fell to Amri in the 83rd minute. But, with only the goalkeeper to beat, the 30-year-old's shot was parried away for a corner.
Marshalled by Baihakki Khaizan at the back, the Lions held the Syrians at bay for much of the game.
But one lapse allowed them to nab the winner in the 59th minute. Sanharib Malki easily dribbled past right-back Nazrul Nazari on the left flank and floated a cross for an unmarked Ouday Abdul Jaffal to head in from point-blank range.
In October 2013, Singapore defeated Syria 2-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium before they were thumped 0-4 a month later in an away encounter during the qualifiers for the 2015 Asian Cup.
"We have the right to be disappointed with the result tonight but we can be very proud of our performance because we tried to get a result till the very last minute," said coach Bernd Stange.
"It was our third straight away game in a row and it was extremely tough. I am proud of how our boys performed, especially in the last 20 minutes. They tried everything to get a result.
"Don't forget there is a gulf in world rankings between Syria (121th) and Singapore (157th). We showed we can match such a team, even in a difficult away game."
The Lions now sit second in Group E on four points after three games, two behind Syria.
The eight group winners and four best runners-up of the qualifiers will advance to the next round of World Cup qualifying and also enter the 2019 Asian Cup.
Singapore had beaten Cambodia 4-0 and earned a 0-0 draw against Japan, who are third on three points but with a game in hand.
The Lions will have three successive home matches at the National Stadium next, starting with an Oct 8 clash against Afghanistan.
They face Cambodia on Oct 13 and Japan on Nov 12. Their final match of the qualifiers will be an away tie against Afghanistan on March 29. Although he did not taste victory against Syria, Stange may still have something to smile about.
Sources told The Straits Times that there were no hints of a farewell from him after the Syria match. The ST understands that the German is on the verge of being handed a six-month extension to see out the rest of the qualifiers.
The Football Association of Singapore declined to divulge any details when contacted yesterday but sources said it will announce its decision on Stange in coming weeks.
This article was first published on September 5, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.