World Cup qualifiers: Lions roar in Saitama

World Cup qualifiers: Lions roar in Saitama
SHOW-STOPPER: Singapore goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud (in green) denying Japan striker Shinji Okazaki (No. 9, on the ground) — one of his many impressive saves he made during the match.
PHOTO: Reuters

They may be known as the Lions, but few gave them a chance of being anything but prey last night to Japan in Saitama Stadium 2002.

More than 90 minutes later, after a display of heart and guts, Singapore were left celebrating a remarkable result, holding the Blue Samurai to a 0-0 draw in a second-round Group E clash of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

The stalemate means they are now top with four points from their opening two matches and the result came as a much-needed boost for Singapore football, after the debacle of the National Under-23 team at the SEA Games on home soil.

There were heroes aplenty for the visitors, from the unbeatable Izwan Mahbud in goal to captain Hariss Harun's indomitable display in midfield.

SMALL SENSATION

But credit must also go to oft-criticised Singapore coach Bernd Stange, who masterminded one of the country's best results in its football history.

"Today, we achieved an unexpected result and something of a small sensation," said the German.

"Perhaps the way we played wasn't attractive for the neutrals, but what could we do?

"We were prepared to come under enormous pressure in the first half and in the first 20 minutes of the second half, but I told the boys at half-time that if we could overcome this then it (a positive result) is possible.

"We spent massive parts of the match defending, but we also tried to keep the ball without committing needless fouls… That was very important.

"In the end, we didn't even have a yellow card - that was how proper and controlled the players were and I am really proud of them."

Before kick-off, much of the debate was not whether the Japanese were going to win, but by how many.

While a number of their internationals were not fully match fit as it is the off-season in Europe, the hosts did boast the likes of AC Milan dynamo Keisuke Honda, Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa and Mainz hotshot Shinji Okazaki and, backed by a capacity crowd expecting a rout in the country's World Cup qualifying opener, the Japanese were full of intent right from the kick-off.

But Izwan played one of the games of his life, keeping the opponents at bay with fine stops from Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe and Okazaki in the opening 45 minutes.

The pressure increased after the break, but Izwan made another outstanding save to deny Okazaki in the 55th minute, keeping out his glancing header and then recovering in time to hook the ball to safety before it could bounce over the line.

In the 68th minute, the hosts looked destined to finally break the deadlock when Honda met Kosuke Ota's corner with a bullet header, only for Izwan to instinctively stick out his right palm and push it wide.

When the hosts did manage to beat the LionsXII custodian, it was the woodwork that denied Japan as Tomoaki Makino and Honda both fired efforts onto the post and bar, respectively.

The Singapore players' efforts saw both Baihakki Khaizan and Khairul Amri stretchered off in the closing stages but, in the end, they were able to seal a stalemate that will be celebrated for years to come.

MAGNIFICENT IZWAN

It may be only June but, already, 2015 is proving to be a year to remember for Izwan Mahbud.

He has spent much of the season as captain of the LionsXII in the Malaysian Super League and led the Singapore outfit to the Malaysian FA Cup with a Man-of-the-Match performance in their 3-1 final win over Kelantan.

But last night, in front of 57,533 fans at the Saitama Stadium 2002, it got even better for the 24-year-old.

Facing famous names like Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki, not many gave Izwan and Singapore a chance in their 2018 World Cup qualifier against Asian giants Japan.

Yet, facing wave after wave of attack from the Blue Samurai, the Lions goalkeeper stood tall and strong, and produced a series of outstanding saves to help his side claim a monumental 0-0 draw, which leaves them top of Group E with four points from two matches.

Singapore beat Cambodia 4-0 in their group opener in Phnom Penh last Thursday.

The humble Izwan was keen to play down his own display after the game, instead paying tribute to the effort of everyone in the Singapore camp.

"I think the whole team deserve full credit," he told the New Paper.

"From every player down to all the backroom staff… For me, everyone was a Man of the Match tonight.

"Obviously you will be happy after drawing against a side who were recently champions of Asia (2011), and the team were brilliant.

"Everyone played his heart out and no words can fully describe the team performance."

SURREAL EXPERIENCE

Still, the LionsXII custodian did play a crucial role in his side getting the point, keeping the likes of Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe at bay in the first half, before producing two stunning saves after halftime to keep out headers from Okazaki and Honda.

Laughing when asked if he had to pinch himself to make sure it was not a dream, Izwan admitted it was a surreal experience playing against established stars.

He said: "Of course, it was a really amazing feeling playing against Kagawa, Honda and company.

"Usually you're watching them on television and suddenly now you are about to do battle with them… I was really honoured just to be standing in the tunnel with them.

"But once the game is on, you have to put that all aside and, thankfully, I had one of my best games ever. But I really must thank my teammates for their amazing display.

"It's always more difficult to get points when you're playing away, but now we've taken four from our first two away games.

"But we must take one game at a time as it's going to be another tough game away to Syria in our next qualifier."

The goalkeeper earned plenty of praise from Lions coach Bernd Stange, with the German suggesting the goalkeeper could be playing in Japan very soon, drawing chuckles from the local media.

Izwan insisted he is far from the finished article and had much to do if he wanted to play abroad.

"It will definitely be a dream come true if I were to get to play overseas," he said.

"But I will still continue to work hard - even harder in fact - after this display as I still have a lot to learn."


This article was first published on June 17, 2015.
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