Football: Cool over midfield muddle

Singapore national football coach Bernd Stange (left) with midfielder Hariss Harun (right).
PHOTO: Football Association Of Singapore

National football coach Bernd Stange has a problem on his hands.

Ahead of the Lions' vital clash against Afghanistan in their World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier at the National Stadium on Thursday, he has to come up with a solution to replace two of his biggest stars.

Midfielders Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin, two-thirds of Singapore's first-choice central midfield trio, will miss the game through suspension.

Stange, however, insists he isn't losing any sleep over the issue.

When The New Paper asked the German last night if he had come up with a plan, he said: "How can I decide (who plays)?

"I meet the team only tomorrow.

"I will speak to my coaching colleagues, I will speak to the captain and then I make the decision.

"It will be intuitive. Honestly, today, I still don't know.

"But I am sleeping all right at night."

Izzdin Shafiq, the LionsXII holding midfielder, is the third man in Stange's preferred midfield triumvirate and will have to be at his best to offset the absence of his regular partners.

But the 24-year-old believes the team can cope with the loss of his clubmate Safuwan and Johor Darul Ta'zim powerhouse, Hariss.

Hariss, capped 56 times, has been vital in JDT's Malaysian Super League-winning campaign and their run to the AFC Cup quarter-finals this season, while the LionsXII's Safuwan, the defender-turned-midfielder with 51 caps, has scored 13 goals this year.

"We will miss what they bring to the national team, but I think we will be okay," said Izzdin.

"I'm sure whoever comes in will give his 100 per cent to help the team.

"As for me, I will just do my job as usual, alongside whoever coach decides to partner me with."

If Stange sticks with a central midfield three, then Zulfahmi Arifin, who replaced Safuwan in Singapore's headline-grabbing 0-0 draw with Japan in Saitama on June 16, is expected to take up one of the two available midfield slots.

The other could go to Shahdan Sulaiman or Firdaus Kasman, although both LionsXII players have had limited minutes recently at club level.

Hafiz Abu Sujad, who has been Stange's first-choice left winger, is another option as he's excelled in a central role for the LionsXII in 2014.

Another option is Shahril Ishak, the experienced 31-year-old who holds the national record of 124 caps and plays in Malaysia's second tier with Johor Darul Ta'zim II, although in recent seasons he has operated in a more advanced role up front or as a second striker.

Stange has repeatedly stressed the need for the Lions to reach the 2019 Asian Cup if Singapore football wants to move forward.

Singapore have never qualified for the tournament but can do so by finishing the group campaign at least as one of the four best runners-up out of the eight groups.

The Lions are currently third after three games, behind group leaders Syria and Japan, and ahead of Afghanistan and Cambodia.

"If we want to make it to the 2019 Asian Cup, we have to be able to cope with injuries, suspensions and other unexpected things," said Stange.

"No two players can substitute for Hariss and Safuwan, they are our top players but we have to find a way and we have many options.

"We have individuals that can come in, or we could change the system we play to a 4-4-2.

"So it depends."

This article was first published on October 5, 2015.
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