SINGAPORE - Two years ago, Singapore won their record fourth ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) championship title on the back of a strong defence, helmed by centre backs Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin who were touted as the best central defensive pairing in the region.
Two years on, the Lions' defence doesn't look as water-tight anymore - they conceded 15 goals in nine international 'A' friendlies this season, against opposition that ranges from Middle East giants to Asian minnows Macau and Cambodia.
While Baihakki and Safuwan do not care for labels, opposing strikers will do well not to underestimate Singapore's defence when Group B action of the AFF Suzuki Cup kicks off on Sunday.
"Let them think that Singapore's defence is not that strong anymore. It's okay, it's not a problem and I am not bothered about it," said Baihakki, 30, after the Lions' rain-interrupted training session at the Jalan Besar Stadium yesterday evening.
"There's always criticism... but we will only make it better."
Safuwan, 23, said: "We don't talk about individual's mistakes when we concede goals. We make mistakes as a team.
"We have been conceding goals against quality teams, and it's fair to say that we need to work on some things.
"We don't know how the tournament will turn out for Bai and myself but, at the end of the day, we have only one mission, which is to do well for Singapore in the Suzuki Cup."
The duo's successful defensive partnership in the victorious 2012 campaign was perhaps a result of them playing together regularly for the LionsXII in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) that season.
They also flourished under former Lions trainer and now Myanmar coach Raddy Avramovic's penchant for an organised, disciplined brand of football.
Since then, many things have changed.
Baihakki joined MSL champions Johor Darul Ta'zim at the start of the season, but rejoined Fandi Ahmad's LionsXII in May.
Fandi has also given Safuwan the licence to go forward regularly, something that national coach Bernd Stange has also encouraged.
Stange's coaching philosophy is also starkly different from Avramovic's.
Baihakki said: "We are at a position, along with the goalkeeper, where we are always more likely to make mistakes. But, as a team, our defending is not as sound as we want it to be.
"Coach Bernd is concentrating on playing more attacking football, and with more flair.
"We will try to minimise the mistakes and, hopefully, when the Suzuki Cup starts, everything will come together and our defensive momentum will be back."
The Lions trained last evening after a two-day break, following their 4-2 friendly win over Cambodia on Monday.
The 22-strong squad - defenders Madhu Mohana and Faritz Hameed were conspicuously absent and are likely to be dropped from the final squad - seemed highly focused during training, even frequently lunging into tackles, with the likes of Faris Ramli and Khairul Amri taking tumbles at times.
Despite a less than succcesful season, Baihakki and Safuwan are fired up to start on a clean slate as they prepare to face Thailand in their opening match at the National Stadium on Sunday.
Safuwan said: "What has passed is history, it's about how Bai and I are going to build another defensive relationship.
"We still share that telepathic understanding... and it all boils down to believing in each other.
"Goals win you matches, but a good defence wins you championships. If we can do well in both, we can make a good team to win the Suzuki Cup."
This article was first published on November 21, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.