Football: Sundram to whip Lions into shape for AFF Cup

(From left) Baihakki Khaizan, Daniel Bennett and Khairul Amri at caretaker coach Sundram's first centralised training session ahead of two friendlies against Malaysia and Hong Kong. Irfan Fandi, son of local icon Fandi Ahmad, is in the senior squad f
(From left) Baihakki Khaizan, Daniel Bennett and Khairul Amri at caretaker coach Sundram's first centralised training session ahead of two friendlies against Malaysia and Hong Kong. Irfan Fandi, son of local icon Fandi Ahmad, is in the senior squad for the first time.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Coach has 7 weeks and 5 friendlies, stresses experience & confidence building

The countdown has begun for national caretaker coach V. Sundramoorthy, as he seeks to ensure Singapore are in peak condition for next month's Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup.

Seven weeks and five friendlies are all that separate the Lions from their Nov 19 opener with Group A hosts the Philippines, and Sundram has begun stepping up preparations for the biggest test of his managerial career.

Yesterday, he conducted his first centralised training session ahead of two warm-up games against Malaysia (Friday) and Hong Kong (Oct 11). This will be followed by a 10-day training camp in Qatar (Nov 1-10), which includes two friendlies, and a final sparring match on Nov 12.

All are arranged to hone the Lions' tactical awareness and get everyone on the same wavelength.

Last evening, despite having about half of his 25-man squad - 11 were absent due to club commitments - Sundram still managed to run several drills at the Geylang Field.

Thailand and Indonesia are the other Group A teams, and all three opponents present tough obstacles to Sundram's semi-final target.

Yet the 50-year-old was undeterred by the challenge, particularly given his penchant for meticulous planning and belief that a superior game plan was a great leveller against skill and physical strength.

"We've been tracking them and know the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents," he told The Sunday Times. "We'll prepare accordingly and work tactically on how we're going to overcome them."

For that, he needs lieutenants on the field he can trust. Which is why Sundram is turning to veterans Daniel Bennett and Fahrudin Mustafic, both of whom were called up despite being in the twilight of their careers.

Centre-back Bennett turns 39 next January, while defensive midfielder Mustafic is 35. Both played key roles when Singapore won the AFF Cup for the fourth time in 2012 and were not in the side who crashed out in the group stage two years later on home soil.

Sundram noted: "They will add experience. These players are winners. They have this mentality where they can go out and fight for the country. That is important.

"You can blend in players like Irfan (Fandi), Shawal (Anuar), who are young and are going to learn from these guys."

Friday's squad announcement was the first time that Irfan Fandi, eldest son of former national captain Fandi Ahmad, received a senior call-up and the 19-year-old was raring to stake his claim.

He said: "It's a great chance for me to prove myself and I want to learn and take as much as I can from the senior players."

There was experience whichever direction he turned, whether it was exchanging quick passes with forwards Shahril Ishak (129 caps) and Khairul Amri (106), defending alongside defender Baihakki Khaizan (125 caps) or getting shouted at by goalkeeper Hassan Sunny (56 caps).

Winning tournaments like the AFF Cup were built from such foundations, said Bennett, who has lifted the trophy thrice in 2004, 2007 and 2012.

Leading by example is key but so is building confidence in the weeks leading up to a major competition and that must start with a positive result against Malaysia at the National Stadium on Friday.

Bennett said: "No game against Malaysia is a friendly. While the big picture is that beating them doesn't really change anything for us, it's still part of building towards the Suzuki Cup.

"You need to start winning games and carry that momentum."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'Sundram whips lions into shape for cup'. Print Edition | Subscribe