Pushing hard to close the gap on Malaysians

HE VISUALISES each scene before he sleeps, on his way to training or while he is in the bathroom: of himself dribbling past a player, striking on target, making a through pass or pulling off a tackle that leads to a counter-attack and goal.

The pressure to perform at the SEA Games is undoubtedly a big burden to bear for national hockey captain Enrico Marican.

Yet, in his third SEA Games outing, the 24-year-old is optimistic that his team can close the gap on regional powerhouses Malaysia, even though a first men's team gold since 1973 remains a distant prospect for Singapore.

"(We) have full-time athletes for the first time in the team," he said. "We are now able to focus solely on getting physically fitter and mentally sharper, which is what other teams have been doing all the time.

"The expectations are definitely higher but we are excited to see what we can achieve from our current preparations."

While the presence of nine full-time players will be a boost to the men's medal quest, few are giving them much chance of ending Malaysia's long dominance - a golden streak that was broken only by Singapore's 1973 triumph.

In fact, when the national team took on the Malaysia Under-20 side earlier this month, they lost all five friendly matches against the team who will likely feature in next month's Games, as the senior side are preparing for the World League semi-finals from June 20.

Marican was also on the wrong end of 7-1 and 5-0 routs by Malaysia in the 2009 and 2013 Games respectively, but insists that his side can give Malaysia a tough time this time around.

He said: "We need to start each game strong and maintain our intensity till the last whistle to put pressure on the Malaysians, who have conceded goals to us in counter-attacks."

Singapore coach Solomon Casoojee also drew positives from the friendly matches, saying: "We were conceding over 70 turnovers per match during January's World League, and in our friendlies against Malaysia, it was down to 54 per match.

"We lack consistency in terms of intensity, pressure and clinical finishing. But the Malaysians have shown that they do make silly mistakes under pressure, and we must convert those chances into goals."

Mirnawan Nawawi, Malaysia's team manager, is nonetheless wary of his team being over-confident against the Games hosts.

He said: "We respect the Singapore team as they have a skilful and experienced team based on the last time we met. They also have the home crowd to support them and that is an advantage."

Seasoned observers believe that Singapore need to take advantage of their quality within to start producing results.

Said one local coach, who declined to be named: "One of the senior players has to be the next Harjeet Singh (ex-national player) to lead the team when they falter or become tired.

"Harjeet never backed down and authority is needed for the team to rise up to Singapore hockey's task in overcoming the Malaysians, and the core players have to be responsible for that."

It is the same story for women's hockey, with Singapore's 1993 triumph the only time that Malaysia have not won gold in the event.

Repeating that feat seems unlikely next month, but Singapore women's national coach Sunil Prasad is looking for long-term progress rather than instant gains, having taken the reins only in late February.

Said the former Malaysian national player: "The players can be naive compared to the elite players with their lack of international experience, but they have compensated with commitment and hard work.

 "They had not had international matches for eight months when I first met the team. So recent friendly matches during our training tour in Kuala Lumpur were important for the girls to prepare against the likes of Malaysia and Thailand, who are training in Korea and will be very fit and dynamic opponents for us."

With just three months to prepare the team for the Games, technical structures, team fitness and defensive principles were the key aspects reinforced during each training session as the team worked around the limited time. 

And it paid dividends.

Women's captain Chua Xinni, 26, said: "I feel that we have become more structured in our game play. Coach (Sunil) has definitely made us more positive and confident as a team and it has shown with our more attacking style of play.

"Playing against the Malaysians allows us to implement tactics that we have practised and it was a morale booster towards our silver-medal target."

 ljeremy@sph.com.sg