Football: Singapore look to lay pitch fears to rest

The National Stadium pitch at the Singapore Sports Hub in Kallang.

SINGAPORE - Singapore will look to overcome concerns about the pitch at their gleaming new National Stadium as they launch the defence of their AFF Suzuki Cup regional title this weekend.

The reigning Southeast Asian champions will take on Thailand, runners-up at the tournament's last edition in 2012, in the first competitive match at the venue on Sunday.

Worries about the pitch have overshadowed high-profile friendlies at the domed 55,000-seater, where the coaches of Brazil and Juventus were both unimpressed at the sandy, rutted surface.

But some intensive horticulture, including the use of high-powered halogen lamps, has vastly improved grass coverage at what is the centrepiece of Singapore's new, $1 billion sports complex.

A pop concert by Taiwanese star Jay Chou was rescheduled and a Maori All Blacks rugby match was scrapped as officials pulled out all the stops to make sure the pitch was ready for the Suzuki Cup.

Even so, three of the six group matches in Singapore will be played not at the new venue but at the venerable Jalan Besar stadium, whose artificial surface also has its critics.

The tournament starts on Saturday in Hanoi, where Group A hosts Vietnam play Indonesia and the Philippines face Laos. Malaysia and Myanmar are Singapore's other two rivals in Group B.

Four-time champions Singapore and Thailand's War Elephants are both much changed since the Lions' 3-2 aggregate triumph two years ago, with new coaches and radically overhauled squads.

After grabbing three ASEAN titles in eight years under Raddy Avramovic, Singapore are now with German coach Bernd Stange, who has a higher tempo approach focused on possession and quick passing.

The former East Germany and Iraq boss, while retaining a handful of stalwarts including 2012 tournament MVP Shahril Ishak, has also cut the team's dependence on naturalised players.

Emotional return

Stange's Singapore must also negotiate the challenges of arch-rivals Malaysia and Myanmar, now coached by Avramovic, if they are to reach the two-legged semi-finals.

"It is always tough to defend a title, and our task is made more difficult by being placed in a tough group," Stange said.

"We will have to be at our very best in all three matches if we want to make it to the knockout stages." Thailand have not won the competition since Kiatisuk Senamuang skippered them to victory in 2002, and the Thai legend nicknamed "Zico" will be looking to end the 12-year drought as coach.

After imported coaches Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and Winfried Schafer all failed to land the title for Thailand, Kiatisuk has embarked on a clear-out, retaining only six players from 2012.

The 41-year-old is putting his faith in youth, calling up many of the under-23 players that he coached to victory at the 2013 Southeast Asian Games and the semi-finals of the 2014 Asian Games.

In Hanoi, Saturday's match with Vietnam will represent an emotional homecoming for Indonesia coach Alfred Riedl, who had three spells in charge of Vietnam and received a kidney donation from a Vietnamese man in 2007.

However, the Austrian said he is focused on his task of leading the Merah Putih to their first ever ASEAN title after finishing as runners-up on four separate occasions.

"I cannot let emotion get in the way and I hope that when we play against Vietnam in the Suzuki Cup, we beat them," he said.

"My feeling for Vietnam is very good but we're playing against them in a match, I want to beat them. There's no question about that."