The mountains that dot the northern skyline of the Ansan Wa Stadium turned out to be an omen of things to come.
After a morale-sapping defeat, Singapore are now left with a mountainous task to qualify for the second round of the Asian Games football competition following a 0-1 loss in their Group C opener.
With only three minutes of normal time remaining, Tajikistan centre-back Siyovush Asrorov found space easily and was able to power a header past the outstretched hands of Hassan Sunny from a corner, punishing the men in red for their slack marking.
The late goal was all the more cruel, considering Singapore matched their opponents, ranked 32 places higher in Fifa's senior rankings at number 120, for much of the game.
National Under-23 coach Aide Iskandar was left to rue his team's poor concentration at such a crucial point of the match.
Said Aide, who is deputising for ill national head coach Bernd Stange: "This is football. You must keep your concentration for 90 minutes. We paid the price but deserved at least a draw. I'm proud of the boys. We were organised, disciplined, and difficult to break down. They gave everything."
His counterpart Mukhsin Mukhamadiev said the team had prepared for the match by watching Singapore's friendly game against Dynamo Moscow in Austria in July, and added: "The match was very hard because of the humidity. We had the better chances, and I'm happy we won.
"I'm not surprised by the way Singapore played. We analysed their friendly against Dynamo so we knew what to expect."
Aide's team started well, pressing with speed and defending resolutely. They also kept their nerve and shape, even after an injury to Zulfahmi Arifin meant he had to be replaced by Asian Games debutant Amirul Adli Azmi after 26 minutes.
Tajikistan's best chance fell to lone striker Shodibek Gafarov, who shot wide with only the goalkeeper to beat in the 12th minute. Midfielder Dilshod Vasiev also came close nine minutes later when his shot was cleared off the line by Safuwan Baharudin.
Singapore started the second half stronger, and came closest to scoring in the 65th minute. Shahfiq Ghani's volley from a tight angle was parried well by Tajikistan goalkeeper Alisher Tuychiev. From the rebound, Faris Ramli's effort with an overhead kick went just wide. Then came the late sucker-punch.
Oman, who lost 0-2 to Palestine yesterday, are Singapore's next opponents on Wednesday and Aide hopes he can raise the morale of the group.
Said Aide: "I told the boys the last thing to do is to point fingers. It's going to be tough, but it's not over yet. It's my responsibility to keep their heads up. I've done it before, hopefully I can do it again."
Hassan, who is one of three overaged players allowed on the squad agreed: "I'm disappointed to concede from a set piece so late, but we had a talk right after the game, and I told them it's important to forget this.
"We have to start afresh. It's definitely more difficult to qualify for the second round, but we must look forward now and aim to get a good result against Oman."
This article was first published on Sep 15, 2014.
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