SINGAPORE - The easy part was to promise entertaining, attacking football but Nazri Nasir walked the talk when he guided the Lions to a 1-0 win over Malaysia in the AirMarine Cup on Wednesday (March 20), in his debut as the caretaker national coach.
Even with an inferior 48 per cent of possession, Singapore made better use of the ball to craft seven chances, hitting the target half a dozen times as compared to one shot on target in eight attempts for the hosts.
And when the winner came in the 83rd minute, it was a lethal blend of precision and chemistry as Khairul Amri took out four yellow shirts with a through pass for Faris Ramli to calmly slot past goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat.
The match was played before a sparse crowd at the 90,000 capacity Bukit Jalil Stadium as many Malaysian fans reportedly boycotted the match owing to the RM35 (S$11.60) admission price.
Still, to win away in the Tigers' den was a creditable result considering that the hosts had reached the final of the recent Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup while the Lions crashed out in the group stage.
Nazri kept his pre-match promise and fielded an attacking 4-3-3 system with big changes in all departments.
First-choice defender Shakir Hamzah had to miss the derby owing to family issues, and in his place, Amirul Adli, was recalled after a four-year absence and given his first start, alongside Safuwan Baharudin in central defence.
Playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman was preferred ahead of midfield pivot Izzdin Shafiq, while the unpredictable Iqbal Hussain started in place of tricky winger Gabriel Quak in the right forward role.
It was Singapore who had the better chances, as Khairul Fahmi had to pull off a save in the 12th minute after Yasir Hanapi intercepted the ball from defender Shahrul Saad. A minute later, Yasir hammered a volley off Shahdan's corner but was denied by the goalkeeper again and the Melaka United custodian was in action a minute later, this time denying Khairul Amri's close-range attempt.
Malaysia had a period of dominance on the hour mark as they upped their tempo with Australia-born right-back Matthew Davies and winger Mohamadou Sumareh, originally from Gambia, stretching the Lions.
And it was captain Zaquan Adha who wasted the best opportunity in the 65th minute, when he connected with midfielder Akram Mahinan's cutback only for goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud to save with his legs.
At the final whistle, an emotional Nazri knelt down on the turf in prayer. Not only had Singapore won the Causeway derby, but the Lions had also done it playing positively, passing the ball accurately instead of aimless punts forward.
In the earlier game on Wednesday, Oman - under new Dutch coach Erwin Koeman - thrashed Afghanistan 5-0 at the same venue. Singapore will now face the Omanis at Bukit Jalil on Saturday night in the final, while Malaysia will play Afghanistan for third place in the late afternoon.