Football: Fandi Ahmad's Lions enter brave new world, leaving tentative tactics behind

Lions Khairul Amri and Gabriel Quak being put through their paces in training on Nov 5, 2018, ahead of their AFF Suzuki Cup opener with Indonesia.
Lions Khairul Amri and Gabriel Quak being put through their paces in training on Nov 5, 2018, ahead of their AFF Suzuki Cup opener with Indonesia.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Gabriel Quak had not been called up to the national football squad in over a year.

But on Friday, a piece of wizardry on the wing from the player, who was a fleet-footed attacker in his youth, allowed him to deliver the cross that led to the Lions' crucial goal in the 1-0 win over Indonesia in their Suzuki Cup opener.

The moment is perhaps symbolic of not just the 27-year-old Quak's revival but also that of the Lions.

Said Quak, who was recalled by interim coach Fandi Ahmad this year, and whose ability to carve open defences and score was on full display on Friday, as well as his diligence in tracking back and throwing himself into tackles: "While I feel like I can express myself more on the pitch, I'm also aware of my defensive duties, which is why you see us sprinting to recover possession when we lose the ball."

He is not the only Lion to have been transformed since Fandi Ahmad took the reins, albeit for the interim, in May.

On Friday, Indonesia were chasing the equaliser furiously in the last 15 minutes of the Asean Football Federation game when the coach made his first substitution.

But instead of throwing on a defender for Quak and "closing shop", Fandi went for an almost like-for-like swop as he brought on Adam Swandi in the 77th minute.

Less than 10 minutes later, it was the attack-minded Nazrul Nazari who replaced left-back Shakir Hamzah, before striker Khairul Amri took Ikhsan Fandi's place in added time.

There were also three tournament debutants on the night: right-back Zulqarnaen Suzliman, Ikhsan and centre-back Irfan Fandi.

It appears Singapore are now in a brave new world instead of being shackled by the tentative tactics of the past.

With the Lions extending their unbeaten run to five international games and winning streak to four - their longest since they won nine on the trot from 2004 to 2005 - it is clear that there is now a high level of trust between coach and players.

The three points have raised spirits ahead of equally vital Group B clashes in the Philippines (Tuesday) and Thailand (Nov 25) which sandwich Singapore's next home game against Timor Leste (Nov 21).

But the bonus was the manner in which Singapore won - they took the game to the speedier and technically superior Indonesians when the opportunity arose, but also remained organised and disciplined in defence in front of 30,783 fans at the National Stadium.

And true to the #onestrong hashtag the Football Association of Singapore created for this campaign, the Lions look like a united family on and off the pitch.

From the bench, centurion Baihakki Khaizan was seen giving Irfan, his successor in defence, a pep talk on the pitch at half-time. Ikhsan, 19, lifted fellow forward Faris Ramli, who was on his knees after seeing his lob bounce off the bar in the second half.

Even the usually reticent assistant coach S. Subramani charged out of the dugout to remind the players to stay focused as the visitors tried to pick a fight late in the game.

Faris said: "There is a real unity and belief about the team. We are fighting for each other too while fighting for our country."

While it is always good to start a tournament with a win, skipper Hariss Harun urged his team to retain the hunger that has allowed them to end their run of three years without a competitive victory.

The midfielder, who grabbed the winner on Friday, added: "We needed this win, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. We have not won the tournament or even got out of the group yet.

"We must stay focused, remain humble, respect every opponent and work harder to achieve our goals."