AFF Suzuki Cup 2016

Suzuki Cup: 10-man Lions force draw against co-hosts Philippines

This high studs-up tackle by Hafiz Sujad (right) against Phil Younghusband in the 35th minute earned him a red card in Singapore's 0-0 draw in their AFF Cup opener against the Philippines yesterday.
This high studs-up tackle by Hafiz Sujad (right) against Phil Younghusband in the 35th minute earned him a red card in Singapore's 0-0 draw in their AFF Cup opener against the Philippines yesterday.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Solid defence the key to Sundram's strategy as six-man backline nullifies Philippines' attack

Philippines 0
Singapore 0

He earned the top job with his pragmatic, results-based tactics. And his Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup debut as coach has further strengthened V. Sundramoorthy's reputation.

Never mind that it was not pretty to watch, nor that Singapore had zero shots on target, but the Lions came away with a precious point in their Group A opener against fired-up co-hosts Philippines after a solid defensive display.

As first suggested by The Straits Times yesterday, Sundram experimented with a six-man backline and this was evident every time possession was lost against the Azkals. Nicknamed the King Cobra during his playing days, the tactician turned boa constrictor in Bocaue's Philippines Sports Stadium.

Knowing that his opposite number Thomas Dooley advocates slinging crosses in for his forwards, Singapore's wide midfielders fell into full-back mode to congest the wings. Even when balls were pumped into the box, the central defensive pairing of Madhu Mohana, replacing Baihakki Khaizan - who is not fully match fit - and Daniel Bennett mopped things up.

HOLDING OUT THE OPPOSITION

This was all about mental strength, it's about running that extra mile. With 10 players, it was hard to press high up. (I am pleased) with the mental and physical part (of our game).

V. SUNDRAMOORTHY, Singapore coach.

THWARTED BY DEFENSIVE TACTICS

In over 40 years in the game, I'd always try to play football. That's not the kind of game I like to play.

THOMAS DOOLEY, the Philippines coach.

Singapore's task became tougher after 35 minutes when midfielder Hafiz Sujad was shown a straight red by Syrian referee Massoud Tufayelieh Jamil Naifa for kicking Phil Younghusband in the chest.

But the Azkals were denied by the Lions' rearguard with Bennett, in particular, outstanding. Goalkeeper Hassan Sunny was equally commanding at the back. International rookie M. Anumanthan also produced a defiant display in a midfield holding role. The solid defensive block will likely be the defining feature of the Lions' AFF Cup campaign this year.

While Philippines forward Younghusband lamented the result as "two points lost," Sundram believed otherwise.

He praised his team: "This was all about mental strength, it's about running that extra mile. With 10 players, it was hard to press high up. (I am pleased) with the mental and physical part (of our game).

"We were struggling in the last quarter of the game but even if the boys missed something, Hassan was there to clear things up. We got something today and we are confident going forward."

But with time running out and several Singapore players going down with cramps, Dooley was not impressed. He said: "In over 40 years in the game, I'd always try to play football. That's not the kind of game I like to play.

"As mentioned, they parked the bus. We had two or three great opportunities to score but we didn't. It's a bit disappointing because we were playing against 10 men."

In a drab game where the hosts' attacking intent was neutralised by Sundram's bus, or Jeepney, if you like, German-born midfielder Stephan Schrock, who was deployed as a striker, stood out.

His 16th-minute free kick from 30 metres was saved by Hassan. In the 61st minute, he charged into the box but saw his goal-bound shot blocked by Madhu's lunge. And in stoppage time, Schrock's precise corner found left winger Hikaru Minegishi, whose header was clawed away by Hassan.

While unsightly, the Lions' stubborn organisation earned the point though Sundram bristled at accusations of negativity.

A Filipino journalist asked if he felt it was a "lucky" result.

Usually jovial, Sundram scowled: "Do you think I'm lucky? What is the score?"

When the journalist replied "0-0," Sundram shot back: "I answered your question."

Singapore will meet a free-scoring Thailand on Tuesday. Chances are, Sundram is preparing to park another bus. Or maybe, two buses.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline '10-man Lions force draw'. Print Edition | Subscribe