Football: Ikhsan Fandi the match-winner as Singapore Under-22s beat Thais 1-0 to capture Merlion Cup

The Singapore U-22 team celebrating after they won the Merlion Cup, on June 9, 2019.
The Singapore U-22 team celebrating after they won the Merlion Cup, on June 9, 2019.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA
Singapore's Syahrul Sazai (left) tackling Thailand's Natthawut Munsuwan during the Merlion Cup final on June 9, 2019.
Singapore's Syahrul Sazai (left) tackling Thailand's Natthawut Munsuwan during the Merlion Cup final on June 9, 2019.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA
The Singapore Lions celebrating after Ikhsan Fandi (No. 9, centre right, in red) scored against Thailand, on June 9, 2019.
The Singapore Lions celebrating after Ikhsan Fandi (No. 9, centre right, in red) scored against Thailand, on June 9, 2019.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - The Young Lions' hopes of making it to at least the semi-finals of this year's SEA Games - after group-stage eliminations in 2015 and 2017 - will be boosted after they beat the Thailand Under-22s 1-0 to win the Merlion Cup final on Sunday (June 9).

In front of 3,477 fans, including local tycoon Peter Lim who followed the action from the VIP stand at Jalan Besar, Fandi Ahmad's team created history by becoming the first Singapore team to win the competition outright in eight editions.

In 1985, the Lions had finished joint champions with the Yugoslav Olympic team.

Fandi said: "I'm very happy because it has been some time since we last won a trophy. It is important we learn from this victory and build on this for the years to come."

In recent years, it has become an undisputed fact that Singapore are behind Thailand in terms of pace and technique.

But it is never a given that stronger teams always win. It is up to weaker teams to be hungrier and find a way outwit their opponents, be it through well-drilled tactical moves, well-rehearsed set-pieces or simply making the most of the limited opportunities in the game.

And that was the case for the Singapore U-22s as they manfully held their defensive shape. Midfielder Jacob Mahler was in the wars as he provided a superb screen for goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad and centre-backs Irfan Fandi and Lionel Tan.

In front of them, Joshua Pereira was equally tenacious, while Man of the Match Hami Syahin was composed with the ball and distribution.

Thailand U-22 coach Alexandre Gama perhaps paid the Young Lions the best compliment when he said: "We could not play our football because Singapore did very well to run and press. They impressed me with their high level of physical condition. They were tall and strong, and their attitude was amazing."

And perhaps most importantly, the Young Lions now have a clinical poacher in Ikhsan Fandi, who has grabbed six goals in his last seven games for club and country.

The Raufoss striker, who scored in a 34-minute cameo during the 3-0 win over the Philippines in the semi-finals on Friday, came on in the 32nd minute on Sunday and took just four minutes to make an impression.

The 20-year-old took advantage of a defensive mix-up in the Thai ranks to round Korraphat Nareechan, who had charged out of his box. And despite a slip, Ikhsan still managed to bury his shot into the bottom corner.

The rest of Fandi's team also impressed.

They pressed hard aggressively to retrieve possession and won numerous free-kicks in wide positions in the Thailand's half, which gave Irfan the chance to attack Syahrul Sazali or Hami's deliveries.

However, it is important to note that while Thailand were able to call 1.98m Italian-born defender Marco Ballini, they were missing key players such as Buriram attackers Supachok Sarachat and Supachai Jaided who were called up to the senior team.

The rule change to allow two overaged players for the year-end SEA Games in the Philippines could also be a gamechanger should Thailand capitalise on their depth and include established stars like Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda.

Fandi said: "We will be underdogs at the SEA Games. We need to have a good training game to keep up our fitness levels. It is not that we don't have good players, but we need a good strategy that fits what we have and we got to play to our strengths."

Hami added: "It means a lot to win a trophy on home ground in front of our own fans. We had no fear of Thailand even before today, we believed we could beat them but we should focus on improving ourselves and not on others.

"This is a good stepping stone on us and we should build on the momentum from this competition and the AFC Under-23 qualifiers (in March when Singapore were unbeaten against Hong Kong, North Korea and Mongolia)."

In the earlier third-place play-off yesterday, Indonesia U-22s beat their Filipino counterparts 5-0.