Football: Primed for the big challenge

A song drifted into the National Stadium out of the players' tunnel and, while it was hard to make out the words, the cheeky tone was distinct.

The song reached a crescendo just as Baihakki Khaizan, Shaiful Esah and Safuwan Baharudin emerged, all with toothy grins.

For a while, it looked as if the Singapore team's workout yesterday would follow in the mould of a light-hearted LionsXII training session in Terengganu last week, designed to take the mind off what was a do-or-die fixture in the Malaysia Cup.

But yesterday's session, ahead of Thursday's World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier against Japan, was not even remotely similar.

Lions' coach Bernd Stange kicked off proceedings with an impassioned speech to the players, after he told The New Paper that he was very curious to see just how his men would react in the build-up to the clash with powerhouses Japan.

He soon got his answer.

Yasir Hanapi was barged off the ball, Faris Ramli's ankles absorbed several niggly kicks and Safuwan ended up on the turf three times, clutching various parts of his legs. And these were just the obvious incidents.

Stange may well have liked what he saw.

"There are a lot of questions, and I'm very curious to see how we manage against a team like Japan, with much better quality, with world stars," mused the 66-year-old. "If we play against a better team, we have to defend, but we can't survive if we don't do anything going forward."

The winners of each of the eight qualifying groups and the four best runners-up will earn an automatic spot at the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates. The third-placed sides will enter a play-off battle for the remaining spots in the tournament.

The Lions, who aim to qualify for the Asian Cup for the first time, are third in the group, level on points with Japan but having played a game more. Syria, their opponents at the National Stadium next Tuesday, lead the standings two points ahead.

German Stange yesterday declined to speak on individual players or tactics.


But the plan is seemingly an obvious one - stay tight and disciplined at the back, and hit on the break.

Goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud may have been the hero in June, when the Lions escaped with a 0-0 draw from Saitama, but assistant coach V Sundramoorthy insisted that the area between the Singapore penalty box and the halfway line is where the battle will be decided.

"Our central midfielders will be key - they will play very important roles. Their tactical understanding and positioning will be tested," said Sundram. "And we all need to stay compact and strong."

Neither assistant coaches Sundram and Fandi Ahmad nor Stange would comment on who would carry the burden in the engine room, but it is almost certain to be manned by Johor Darul Ta'zim star Hariss Harun, his youth-team partner Izzdin Shafiq and Safuwan.

"Honestly, I feel that there's no pressure on us. No one expected us to earn a point in Saitama, and no one's really expecting anything this time," said Hariss. "There's more expected of them than us."

Hariss distinctly remembers the hard graft needed on that June night in Saitama, and how the Lions' confidence grew with every passing minute. They lasted for 90 minutes then, but Fandi has a feeling it will be a shorter period of heat this time.

"Japan will put us under a lot of pressure in the first half but, once we get to the second, we'll be okay. They will start to feel the heat and humidity here," said the former Singapore captain.

The average temperature in Japan in October and November is between 12 and 18 degrees Celsius and it is colder in Europe, where a number of the Samurai Blue ply their trade.

There will be huge support for the visitors at the 55,000-capacity stadium on Thursday, and the hosts will be desperate not to be cowed by their top-class opponents.

"What is important is that the players are not afraid, that they want to play, and give everything out on the field," said Fandi.

This article was first published on Nov 10, 2015.
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