Football: Lions' Asian Cup hopes buoyed by Bahrain draw

Lions midfielder Yasir Hanapi looks to start an attacking move against Bahrain. He tried to provide the creative spark in Singapore's Group E opener in the third round of Asian Cup qualifying.
Lions midfielder Yasir Hanapi looks to start an attacking move against Bahrain. He tried to provide the creative spark in Singapore's Group E opener in the third round of Asian Cup qualifying.PHOTO COURTESY OF BAHRAIN FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION

Singapore snap three-game losing run with a disciplined performance in toughest fixture

It might be the beginning of a year-long campaign to qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup but the Lions enjoyed a bright start in Group E on Tuesday.

Singapore earned a precious point after securing a 0-0 draw in Riffa, ending a run of seven straight losses to Bahrain.

The tactical organisation and gutsy display against the world No. 127 side - ranked 36 spots higher than the Lions - also bodes well for national coach V. Sundramoorthy and his players.

The trip to Bahrain had been pegged as Singapore's toughest test in the third round of qualifying.

The Lions have winnable ties at the National Stadium when they next face Chinese Taipei (No. 159) on June 13 and Turkmenistan (No. 144) on Sept 5.

Sundram was pleased with his team's discipline as they contained the threat posed by their more physical opponents.

It was also vindication that his well-known defensive approach, which had previously come under fire, was finally in place and working.

He said: "They (Bahrain) are not an easy team. They are physically very strong and (they have) tall strikers.

"We came out with a game plan to sit back, defend and go on the counter-attack. The players were tactically disciplined and they showed a lot of commitment. And with a bit of luck, we've got an important point to move forward in the Asian Cup.

"I expected them to come out (and attack) us. They had two or three good chances, but on this day, they didn't take it. But that's good for us."

Sundram gave 19-year-old centre-back Irfan Fandi his competitive debut on his third cap, and deployed utility player Safuwan Baharudin and defender Juma'at Jantan on the wings.

But they were not just content to sit back and repel the attacks. The wingers, together with midfielder Yasir Hanapi, switched to offence when Singapore had the ball.

Both Safuwan and striker Khairul Nizam had chances to score in the first half, while the rearguard battled hard to nullify the opponents' attack in the second half.

Full-back Faritz Hameed cleared the ball off the line and goalkeeper Hassan Sunny made a few good saves.

The tenacity that had been missing in previous matches was key.

Sundram knew how precious the draw meant to his team, who entered the Bahrain National Stadium on the back of three straight losses.

They had been struggling to regain their form and confidence after last year's dismal AFF Suzuki Cup campaign.

Turkmenistan lead the four-team Group E with three points after defeating Chinese Taipei 3-1 on Sunday.

The top two teams qualify for the 2019 tournament in the United Arab Emirates.

Sundram fancies the Lions' prospects of reaching their first Asian Cup since 1984.

He said: "(We earned) a big point. It's good for a small team like Singapore.

"It gives us a lot of motivation to face the next few games in the Asian Cup."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2017, with the headline 'Lions' Asian Cup hopes buoyed by Bahrain draw'. Print Edition | Subscribe