Football: Lions striker search still on

"This is why I called up some players who may come as a surprise, such as (Khairul) Nizam (left) and Iqbal (Hussain, right), even if people are laughing at us," coach Bernd Stange said, 

SINGAPORE - The top scoring local in the S-League is still Aleksandar Duric, who turns 43 next year.

The evergreen Tampines Rovers striker, so far overlooked by new national football coach Bernd Stange, has scored seven goals in 16 league games.

Foreign players dominate the S-League goalscoring charts. Albirex Niigata's Kazuki Sakamoto, Geylang International's Jozef Kaplan, Tanjong Pagar's Monsef Zerka and Woodlands Wellington's Moon Soon Ho have scored nine goals apiece.

The top 22 players on that list include only three Singaporeans - national strikers Qiu Li and Khairul Amri with six goals, and Yasir Hanapi with four.

After Tuesday's national team training session, Stange agreed that the dearth of prolific strikers is something he is actively looking to address.

"This is why I called up some players who may come as a surprise, such as (Khairul) Nizam and Iqbal (Hussain), even if people are laughing at us," said the 65-year-old German.

"We have a situation and we will try our best to find solutions. We will continue to look for strikers."

Both Nizam and Iqbal, who play for the LionsXII and Courts Young Lions respectively, have just one goal each to their names this season.

But they can take heart from LionsXII forward Shahfiq Ghani, who scored no more than three goals in each of his three previous seasons with CYL, but burst into prominence with five key goals in the Malaysian Super League.

Stange had earlier revealed to The New Paper he would be meeting with S-League clubs on Saturday to share some of his ideas, but he added on Tuesday he will not be pushy.

Even as seven out of the nine local S-League clubs feature a foreign topscorer, including Courts Young Lions' Sherif El-Masri, Stange said he will not tell the clubs to cut back on foreign strikers and stick to locals instead.

He said: "We play one system 4-2-3-1 here, and if some clubs take risks, it's a 4-4-2 and there's one more striker.

"But I am new here. I will not go to the clubs and make demands and insist there do this or that."

Due to S-League commitments, Tuesday's workout involved just 10 players - nine from the LionsXII plus FC Metz's Adam Swandi - but it was an intense 90-minute session focused on passing.

Stange kept coaxing: "More comfortable with the ball, more ideas, more relaxed."

He cited this year's Champions League final and last year's European Championship final, where more than 700 successful passes were made by each of the world-class teams.

Teams like Japan and South Korea also make around 400 to 500 successful passes per game.

Below par

However, the Singapore Under-23s made just over 200 passes in their 1-0 victory over the Indonesia Under-23s last Saturday.

Stange said results are still paramount, but if Singapore are to start closing the gap on the best in Asia, they will have to follow the ways of the best teams.

And today he will meet with coaches in the Football Association of Singapore stable to convince them to come on board.

"It is important to win matches. If we can make just 200 passes and win games, that is fantastic," said Stange. "But to go to the next level, we have to learn from the best teams. And I have the feeling the players like this challenge."

"The coaches will also all have to come closer and I will not allow a split to come between us."

Stange listed his first priority as the national team, followed by the SEA Games team and then the S-League and MSL.

To achieve the target listed in the Football Association of Singapore's strategic plan of becoming one of the top 10 teams in Asia, he believes the Lions have to start looking beyond the SEA Games and the Suzuki Cup.

"We have to find out how to narrow the gap," he said. "We have to leave this horrible group we are in, the worst group with teams like Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.

"The Malaysia Cup, SEA Games and Suzuki Cup are important and we want to win them because we know it means a lot to Singaporeans because of the history.

"If these are just what we want at the end of the day, then we can continue with what we have been doing.

"The other way will hurt because it is difficult. But I am responsible for helping the national team improve... we have to move to another level."

The Lions will play an Asian Cup qualifier against Oman on Aug 14 at Jalan Besar, before away friendlies against China (Sept 6) and Hong Kong (Sept 10).

The Under-23s will also take part in the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia in the first two weeks of September and Stange said he will bring the best players to China, but Under-23s coach V Sundramoorthy "will also have a good squad".