S'pore U-23s: Bruised and battered, but not cowed

MALAYSIA U-23 1

(Thamil Arasu 46)

SINGAPORE U-23 0

aakasim@sph.com.sg

Dominated, shut out and beaten.

Against a full-strength and experienced Harimau Muda machine, it came as little surprise that the Singapore Under-23 side crashed to an opening-day defeat at the Merdeka Tournament on Saturday.

But, after fortuitously coming away with only a 1-0 defeat at the hands of their bitter Causeway rivals, coach V Sundramoorthy was defiant.

Given a full team, he said the Young Lions would be a match for the Malaysians.

"When we have our first-team against Malaysia at the SEA (South-east Asia) Games, it will be a 50-50 game, especially on neutral ground," said the 47-year-old coach.

"We are as good as them, I believe, and we can beat them if we are at our best."

Singapore were missing six key players in Kuantan yesterday, with skipper Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin, Faritz Hameed, Shakir Hamzah, Shahfiq Ghani and goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud all away on national team duty with Bernd Stange's Lions.

Up stepped Zulfahmi Arifin, Afiq Yunos and goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari to fill the void.

Though the Malaysians, the two-time defending SEA Games champions, were clearly the better side over 90 minutes at the water-logged Stadium Darul Makmur, Sundram was pleased with the fight shown by his second stringers.

"Syazwan was the man of the match for me. He was very impressive in goal for us and kept the score low," Sundram said.

"Afiq was a good presence for us in defence and overall the team did well considering the wet pitch.

"When (Khairul) Nizam came on, he troubled the Malaysia defence and had chances to score."

Torrential rain which lasted for hours in the afternoon meant the Darul Makmur pitch was soaked before kick-off, with huge puddles of water all over the field.

While the downpour eased up by halftime, both sides struggled to pass the ball and the match became a showcase of strength and doggedness instead of speed and craft.

The Malaysians had the greater share of the first half but their long balls into the penalty area were comfortably dealt with by centre-backs Afiq and Shiekh Abdul Hadi.

It was Singapore who carved the first clear chance when Nizam - on after 36 minutes for Syafiq Zainal who suffered a knock to the thigh - found himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper. But his tame effort was easily saved.

The pitch improved somewhat for Harimau Muda to play their usual pass-and-move style and they took the lead just 10 seconds into the second-half through Thamil Arasu, who caught Afiq napping in the box before slotting the ball home.

Afiq cancelled out a decent first-half performance when he handled the ball on the line in the 55th minute. He was duly sent off, but the resulting penalty from Wan Zack Haikal was well saved by Courts Young Lions goalkeeper Syazwan.

It was difficult for the visitors to find an equaliser with 10 men for the remaining 35 minutes, and Syazwan had to demonstrate his solid reflexes to keep the score at 1-0.

The Young Lions will play the second match of the quadrangular against the Thai Selection team tomorrow, before ending the round robin stage against SEA Games hosts Myanmar on Wednesday.

Afiq will miss both games after his straight red, but Sundram refused to blame his defender for his dismissal.

"Afiq's hand ball was instinctive. It would have been better if he used his head, but in a way, he took one for the team," said Sundram, who will have Shakir available after the defender flew in to join the squad yesterday.

"I don't think it's a disciplinary problem, let's focus on our positives from the game."

Aware of the absence of several key players in Sundram's side, Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee praised the Singapore outfit for their tactical discipline.

"Even with their second team, Singapore made it so difficult for us," he told The New Paper, after the game.

"We were lucky to get that goal so quickly in the second half - it opened up the game for us."

The SEA Games will be held in Myanmar from Dec 11 to 22, and Ong believes the Young Lions will be one of the favoured teams there.

"Singapore are our main threat at this year's SEA Games, no doubt.

"I hope we can avoid them in the tournament."

Other result:

Thai Selection 1 Myanmar 1

Singapore U-23: Syazwan Buhari 8, Madhu Mohana 7.5, Hafiz Abu Sujad 7, Afiq Yunos 5.5, Shiekh Abdul Hadi 7, Izzdin Shafiq 6, Aqhari Abdullah 6, Zulfahmi Arifin 6, Fazli Ayob 6 (Al-Qaasimy Abdul Rahman 59), Gabriel Quak 6.5 (Raihan Rahman 60), Syafiq Zainal (Khairul Nizam 36, 6)

TNP Man of the Match: Syazwan Buhari

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