AFF Suzuki Cup 2016

Football: Lions' best-laid plans against Thailand go awry

Thailand's Sarawut Masuk (No. 14) celebrating his winning goal with his skipper Teerasil Dangda after leaping the highest to head the game's only goal past Singapore goalkeeper Hassan Sunny.
Thailand's Sarawut Masuk (No. 14) celebrating his winning goal with his skipper Teerasil Dangda after leaping the highest to head the game's only goal past Singapore goalkeeper Hassan Sunny.ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI
Thailand's Sarawut Masuk (No. 14) celebrating his winning goal with his skipper Teerasil Dangda after leaping the highest to head the game's only goal past Singapore goalkeeper Hassan Sunny.
Thailand's Sarawut Masuk (No. 14) celebrating his winning goal with his skipper Teerasil Dangda after leaping the highest to head the game's only goal past Singapore goalkeeper Hassan Sunny.ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI

Lions' cat-and-mouse strategy to keep Thais quiet comes undone after conceding goal at the death

GROUP A

Thailand 1 Singapore 0

What if Juma'at Jantan had scored? What if Shakir Hamzah had put his chance away?

What if Thai substitute striker Sarawut Masuk did not reach that cross?

Singapore's game plan was to eliminate all those uncertainties, to have an explicit target of a draw through ultra-defensive tactics.

Yet the Lions are staring down the barrel of elimination, after the plan backfired on them in the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, and the gunpowder does not smell too good.

Yesterday's 0-1 loss to Group A winners Thailand has now put V. Sundramoorthy's Lions third in the four-team table, and even a win over Indonesia in their final match on Friday may not be enough.

The Philippines drew 2-2 with Indonesia yesterday and are second on two points. A win for the Azkals against Thailand would secure the co-hosts a semi-final spot at the expense of Singapore and Indonesia.

While the Lions trotted out a 4-4-1-1 formation on paper, whenever possession was lost, they would fall back into a 6-3-1 shape, barely disguising their intention to dig in.

Sundram insisted he made the right decision in his cat-and-mouse game against Thailand. The 51-year-old said: "We will do the same if given another chance.

"We were just one minute from snatching a draw. You check your record books, when was the last time Singapore drew Thailand?"

The last time it happened was a goal-less draw in a 2011 friendly. Yet, more recently, in 2012, the Lions triumphed 3-1 in the first leg of the AFF Cup final before going on to lift the trophy 3-2 on aggregate.

At the Philippine Sports Stadium yesterday, just as Singapore's intention was to defend in numbers was clear to the 350-odd fans, it was also evident Thailand have shaky central defenders in Tanaboon Kesarat and Koravit Namwiset.

The duo struggled with the determined running and flamboyance of lone striker Khairul Amri, and kept getting caught out of position, leaving space for other Lions to exploit.

Even though Singapore had just 19 per cent of possession, Thailand were twice exposed to their counter-attacks. But right-back Juma'at hammered his 63rd minute shot wide, while Shakir's 86th-minute effort was parried away.

The defending champions were wobbling in the closing stages but the Lions never took the cue to apply more attacking pressure.

Still, Sundram made it clear he was playing for a draw, saying: "We almost got that important point to progress to the next game. But that's football. We still have a chance. I'm very proud of the boys, they really got stuck in."

While Singapore were trying to engineer a draw through trench warfare, Thailand's coach Kiatisuk Senamuang thought differently.

To the 43-year-old, he had faith in his men's having that extra bit of oomph to floor their opponents.

"Of course, I believe my players," he said, with his eyes lighting up.

"It was not an easy game, (Singapore) played very well defensively. We had watched their World Cup qualifier against Japan (where the Lions stopped 18 shots on goal in a 0-0 draw last year).

"Today, we tried to control the game. We changed things, from a back four to a back three. We controlled the width. We also used Jay (Chanathip Songkrasin) as a second striker because of his good technique. He has the ability to make the difference."

That faith and commitment to attacking football paid off when Sarawut, whose family name Masuk coincidentally means "to go in or score" in Malay, grabbed the winner with just a minute left.

Lions centre-back Daniel Bennett was drawn out of position but still could not prevent Theeraton Bunmathan from curling a cross in.

The Lions defence finally cracked, with Sarawut glancing the ball past Hassan Sunny.

Therein lies the difference: Sundram had trained his men to endure a 90-minute storm, but Kiatisuk lets his believe all they need is a split second to win.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'Best-laid plans go awry'. Print Edition | Subscribe