SOMEONE ASKED before the game if Singapore could take out Afghanistan for three points without talismanic midfielders Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin.
I thought, why not? The Afghans’ campaign in Group E of the second round World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers has so far been miserable. They beat Cambodia 1-0 but were trounced 6-0 by both Japan and Syria.
Singapore’s run, in all their three away ties, was far better. They whacked Cambodia 4-0, drew with mighty Japan 0-0 and lost 1-0 to Syria.
So, in terms of head-to-head and home ground advantage, the absence of Haris and Safuwan through suspension should not have hurt Singapore much. Even Afghanistan coach Slaven Skeledzic’s boast at a pre-match conference on Wednesday that his side would play like Barcelona was scoffed at.
Were we all wrong.
As it turned out, Singapore struggled to win 1-0 at the National Stadium last night. But the result could have been an embarrassing thrashing by Afghanistan had it not been for the steady hands of goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, the determination of Baihakki Khaizan to hold the back line and the industry of Khairul Amri to get the goal.
Lions coach Bernd Stange was not a happy man after the match.
The German’s assessment of his team: “During many periods, we were lacking quality football. They pushed us but we achieved a very, very lucky 1-0 win against a strong team from Afghanistan.”
And the odds of Singapore making the next round: “It is going to be a long and hard way for us.”
Watching the present lot play gives me heartburn.
Yes, the absence of Hariss and Safuwan showed up a gap in the engine room, but should it have been so huge that it allowed the Afghans control of it?
The lack of quality in the Lions side last night was evident — apart from Izwan, Baihakki, Khairul and even midfielder Hafiz Abu Sujad, the rest lack determination. They were simply not up to the mark as internationals.
But Skeledzic’s Afghanistan had one thing that transformed them from a punching bag to a team to watch out for: Attitude.
They were ballsy, gutsy, ran rings around the Lions and were only unlucky not to find the net. Two shots at goal were also cleared off the line. They taught the Lions one important lesson: How to play with purpose.
This is the attitude the Lions need if they are to progress.
They may not qualify for the World Cup Finals even if they get to Round 3 because they are still nowhere near the continent’s top 10. But they can still qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup for the first time, if they finish the group campaign as one of the four best runners-up out of eight Asian qualifying groups.
To do so, the Lions require a mind shift — one that won’t let up when one or two key players like Hariss and Safuwan are missing.
And Stange must crack the whip to get this done. Push the slackers harder or find players who have the fortitude and attitude to get there.
Other result last night: Syria 0 Japan 3
2018 WORLD CUP AND 2019 ASIAN CUP QUALIFIERS
SINGAPORE’S REMAINING MATCHES
Oct 13 Home — Cambodia
Nov 12 Home — Japan
Nov 17 Home — Syria
March 29 Away — Afghanistan