Mission Muscat

Mission Muscat

Even with his own future in doubt, national football coach Bernd Stange is looking to play his part in creating football history here and, for that to happen, he is aiming for a positive result when the Lions take on Syria in their World Cup qualifier on Sept 3 in Muscat, Oman.

The eight group winners and four best runners-up of the second round of the 2018 World Cup Asian qualifiers will advance to the third round, and also qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup Finals, a feat Singapore have never managed except when they hosted the tournament in 1984.

Incredibly, Singapore find themselves top of Group E after a 4-0 win over Cambodia and a superb 0-0 draw with Japan in Saitama and, Stange, whose contract ends next month, said yesterday: "With four points, we are in the driver's seat.

"We achieved something many teams won't be able to achieve in Japan, but that is history.

"Against Syria, we will try to take something in our quest to create history.

"A win or even a point will put us in an outstanding position to qualify for the Asian Cup, and it requires great desire and concentration.

"From my experience, I also know that as the campaign goes on, the pressure will only increase for us to win our home games."

After the Sept 3 test, Singapore have four successive home games against Afghanistan, Cambodia, Japan and Syria before the end of the year.

Most of the Singapore squad trained yesterday at the Geylang Field and the team will travel to Doha tomorrow to take on Qatar in a tune-up on Friday.

Balestier Khalsa goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam, Tampines Rovers left back Shaiful Esah, Home United winger Yasir Hanapi and Warriors FC striker Fazrul Nawaz will miss the friendly and will only join the team in Muscat because their clubs still have S.League matches to negotiate.

Johor Darul Ta'zim midfielder Hariss Harun (Asian Champions League) and JDT II duo Shahril Ishak and Baihakki Khaizan (Malaysia Cup playoff) also did not train yesterday as their clubs play today, but will make it to Doha for the Oman game.

In the squad of 23 this time will be versatile Safuwan Baharudin, who missed the first two qualifiers due to personal reasons.

The 23-year-old LionsXII star will surely play a key role if Stange's side are to post a good result against Syria.

With 14 of his 23 players aged 25 and below, the German believes he has a good, balanced squad, ably supported by quality backroom staff.

"When I took over, I made perhaps the biggest cut in recent years," said the 67-year-old former coach of Belarus, who will once again be assisted by Fandi Ahmad and V Sundramoorthy.

"To rebuild, I dropped the foreign-born players and brought in many young players, who will be ready for the Asian Cup in 2019. "Safuwan is one of the best players from the LionsXII and he is definitely an asset.

"But so are players like Shahril and (Khairul) Amri.

"My message to the senior players in the team is to contribute as much and stay as long as they can.

"The qualifiers are like a marathon and we need a strong squad to cover for injuries, suspensions and unexpected situations.

"(LionsXII coach) Fandi has done a lot to protect the players from burnout, and I really appreciate him and (Courts Young Lions) coach Juergen Raab, who have put national team priorities ahead of their own interests as we move united in one direction."

The Lions beat Syria 2-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium in 2013 during the 2015 Asian Cup qualifiers, but they have mainly struggled against Middle Eastern opponents.

That win was the only positive result in their last 15 matches against teams like Oman, Jordan, Bahrain, Iraq and Syria and, during that run, they have conceded 45 goals while scoring just nine.

Striker Amri, who scored in the 2013 win over Syria and also played in the draw against Japan, said: "It's interesting how we can go close against strong teams like Japan but lose by bigger margins to Middle Eastern teams.

"I think it's because Japan are more patient and thoughtful in their play.

"It was like mental torture as they pull us from side to side, and we have to keep our concentration and discipline to hold them.

"Middle Eastern teams play a very fast-tempo game and rarely give us a chance to settle down.

"But if we believe, keep things tight and counter attack effectively, we can achieve something."

This article was first published on August 25, 2015.
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