Football: Lions bare teeth in draw

Singapore debutant Ikhsan Fandi (right) keeps the ball as Hong Kong defender Helio Goncalves closes him down. The 18-year-old was a second-half substitute and drew praise from Lions coach V. Sundram Moorthy.
Singapore debutant Ikhsan Fandi (right) keeps the ball as Hong Kong defender Helio Goncalves closes him down. The 18-year-old was a second-half substitute and drew praise from Lions coach V. Sundram Moorthy.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Hosts put on an attacking display, earning a late 1-1 draw against Hong Kong with 10 men

Backed into a corner, V. Sundram Moorthy finally unshackled his Lions and his bold approach was rewarded with a 1-1 draw in a friendly against Hong Kong last night.

Known primarily for his pragmatic, safety-first approach, it has taken next week's do-or-die mission against Turkmenistan to coax an attacking display out of the Singapore coach and his players.

From overlapping fullbacks to neat passing triangles to high pressing and killer through balls, the Lions demonstrated something that has been sorely absent in recent years - that they, ranked 171st in the world, can play attractive football against a higher-ranked team (Hong Kong are 146th).

The display is a tiny spot of sunshine in a gloomy period for the sport in Singapore.

"This is one of our better games," a satisfied Sundram said after the match watched by 2,837 fans at Jalan Besar Stadium.

"A win would have been a fair result but a draw is still a morale booster. We created chances, Nazrul (Nazari), Faris (Ramli) had one-on-one chances, we were dangerous at set pieces.

"We coped well (with a physical Hong Kong side). We were closing down quickly, we won many of the second balls, we could outrun (Hong Kong's defence) and get behind."

It is not often that the tactician can speak in such terms about his team as the usual fare dished out is cat-and-mouse counter-attacking football that heavily relies on dead balls. But with Turkmenistan in town on Tuesday for a 2019 Asian Cup qualifier and the Lions needing a win to keep their hopes alive, Sundram decided that Singapore have no choice but to attack.

Singapore are bottom of Group E in the third round of the Asian Cup qualifying after drawing with Bahrain (0-0) and losing to Chinese Taipei (1-2) in their first two games.

However, his plan against Hong Kong went awry in the first minute when the backline fell asleep as a shot from distance rocked Hassan Sunny's crossbar. From the rebound, skipper Chan Siu Ki was fastest to react and score.

That stung the Lions into action. A flurry of attacking chances followed but the breakthrough only arrived in the 76th minute when Safuwan Baharudin released Shakir Hamzah and the left back was hacked inside the box.

From the resultant penalty, Safuwan blasted the ball hard under the body of Wang Zhenpeng to equalise.

The missed chances led Sundram to remind his men: "When we create chances, we have to score."

Hong Kong's South Korean coach Kim Pan Gon praised the Lions, saying: "Singapore were fitter and faster than us.

"They won a lot of high balls even though their players were not as tall as ours. Their match fitness is impressive."

Even an 86th-minute red card for debutant Emmeric Ong, 26, failed to dampen Sundram's appraisal of the overall display. The right back played well until he gave the ball away and had to hack down midfielder Manoel Dos Santos.

The coach said: "Emmeric gave a decent performance. Anyone could have made a mistake like that, even experienced players. Defensively, he gave a lot to the team."

Second-half substitute Ikhsan Fandi, 18, was also given a thumbs-up in his first senior international appearance. Sundram noted: "Ikhsan put himself about and got some tackles in. After he gets more training and experience under his belt, we could be looking at him as our future international striker for the next 10 to 12 years."

With his players now free from any inhibition, the coach believes that he can take the game to the Central Asian side, saying: "We now need to keep the ball better but this is good preparation for Turkmenistan. We will have to try our best to get something out of it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2017, with the headline 'Lions bare teeth in draw'. Print Edition | Subscribe