World Cup qualifier: Relax & roar

World Cup qualifier: Relax & roar
National football team training.
PHOTO: The New Paper

Acrobatic overhead kicks, stunning saves and picture-perfect volleys were the order of the day for the national football team during training at the Geylang Lorong 12 field yesterday.

There were loads of competitiveness and commitment on display but the only two-sided game the Lions played was a bout of football tennis which the team of Shahril Ishak, Hassan Sunny, Faris Ramli and Sahil Suhaimi won amid much mirth and laughter.

There was no tactical work on the first day of their latest centralised training but it was not that national football coach Bernd Stange wasn't taking things seriously six days before their World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier against Japan at the National Stadium on Thursday.

On the contrary, with world No. 152 Singapore ranked 102 places below the Samurai Blue, the 67-year-old German insists the pressure should not be on his team, and he wants his players to loosen up before the showdown.

Just like they were when everyone expected a comfortable victory for Japan in their previous encounter at Saitama in June, only for the Lions to produce a sensational result by holding the Asian powerhouses to a 0-0 draw.

The unexpected draw would have raised not just eyebrows, but also raised expectations that the Lions are capable of conjuring another surprise.

And Stange was keen to temper that as he told The New Paper: "Great games are coming up for boys and for the fans. It's not every month that we play the likes of Japan and Syria at home and I want to take the pressure off the boys.

"Nobody believes we can get anything against Japan and that is the only chance we have. It is always easier to be underdogs, and definitely there is a gap between Japan and us."

The wily coach, who had masterminded wins over France and Holland while in charge of Belarus, definitely knows a thing or two about upsetting the odds, and he has identified two areas in which the Lions must be on point to repeat the Saitama stunner.

DEFENCE

He said: "We have to be relaxed and cool, and there are two things we have to do well if we want to get a positive result against Japan.

"The first is to defend well. When we play weaker teams, the onus is on us to be creative and attack more but, when we are playing against better teams like Japan and Syria, we have more defending to do and we have to do it well.

"The second is to win the ball and keep possession as much and as well as possible so that we do not come under so much pressure.

"Do these two things well, and we have a chance. One 0-0 draw against Japan could be an accident, but another good result will make people curious about Singapore football and that's what we are going for.

"I want the players to step up and show what they have learnt over the years."

Stange has called up 23 players for these two qualifiers and, while there were no big surprises, he did award Courts Young Lions forward Taufik Suparno his first senior national call-up.

He said: "Taufik deserves the call-up and it will be a key opportunity for him to train with and learn from the best national players in Singapore during the next two weeks, including captain Shahril Ishak and Hariss Harun."

OPEN

Singapore are third in Group E with 10 points, two points behind leaders Syria. Japan are second on 10 points, with a better goal difference than the Lions and a game in hand.

Automatic qualification for the Asian Cup and a place in the third round of World Cup qualifiers are still within reach for Stange's man, if they can top their group or finish as one of the top four runners-up from the eight groups.

But the more realistic goal is to secure their progress to the next round of Asian Cup qualifiers by finishing third in the group. To do so, they will have to either win one of their last three games, or hope that fourth-placed Afghanistan fail to accumulate at least seven points from their last three matches and overhaul a 20-goal difference.

"The minimum we want to get out of this round of qualifiers is to make it to the next round of the Asian Cup qualifiers and I'm confident we can do it because we are in the driver's seat now," said Stange.

davidlee@sph.com.sg

GROUP E

SINGAPORE v JAPAN

(Thursday, 7.15pm, National Stadium)


This article was first published on Nov 7, 2015.
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