Football: Inexperienced Singapore U-22s hope to use Merlion Cup as a platform to introduce themselves

Young Lions midfielder Harhys Stewart will captain the Singapore U-22 team in the Merlion Cup. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE – When the Singapore Under-22 side do battle in Cambodia at the May 5-17 SEA Games, they will be one of the least experienced squads that the Republic has ever fielded at the biennial competition.

But coach Philippe Aw believes not having any “notable” names or experienced figures can work in his team’s favour. If they rise to the occasion, they can become greater than the sum of their parts.

While the final list of players for the Games’ football tournament – which will begin on April 29, six days before the May 5 opening ceremony – has yet to be announced, those heading to Cambodia will likely come from the 28-man squad that will compete in this week’s Merlion Cup.

The Singapore U-22 side will face Hong Kong U-22 on Friday at the Jalan Besar Stadium, while Cambodia U-22 take on Malaysia U-22 in the earlier match of the quadrangular tournament. The winners will meet in the final on Sunday, with the losers contesting the third-place play-off.

With no overage players allowed in this SEA Games and injuries to the likes of Lion City Sailors defender Nur Adam Abdullah and Lions forward Ilhan Fandi, Tampines Rovers defender Ryaan Sanizal is the only player in the squad to have a national team cap, having appeared thrice for the Lions.

At the Hanoi Games in 2022, the squad had five players capped at international level.

Ryaan is also one of only five players in this squad that were part of the last Games.

Aw, who coaches the Young Lions in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), said: “Without known names, perhaps people will say we are not going to do well. But among ourselves, we know that there are no big names and everyone knows we cannot depend on one individual. We have to depend on the collective.

“If we can make sure that everyone can chip in, work together as a team to bring out what we want to do, then we can achieve good performances.”

While 19 of the squad are from Young Lions – who have won one out of five matches in the SPL – Aw has also called up nine players from other clubs. 

He has challenged all of them to use the Merlion Cup and the SEA Games to stake their claim for a place in the senior national team, as Lions assistant coach Koichiro Iizuka will be by Aw’s side during the tournaments.

Said Aw: “They know that the next step is the senior team. If you look at what we are doing now, we are refreshing the national team because a lot of our players are old already. Who is next to take over? It’s these boys, right? The opportunity is there for the U-22s to perform and therefore this is a good chance for them.

“Coach Koichiro can be a bridge for them and tell head coach Takayuki Nishigaya that some of these boys have played well and deserve a chance for the national team.”

Singapore U-22 coach Philippe Aw will be leading the team at the Merlion Cup and at May's SEA Games in Cambodia. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Harhys Stewart, who will captain the side in the Merlion Cup, is not too concerned about the lack of experience in the squad.

He said: “There are players here who have played in other age-group tournaments in the region over the years. But the positive thing about this group is that there is a lot of familiarity within the ranks because we have either played together at Young Lions or when we were younger. That will help us to gel a lot quicker.” 

The defensive midfielder is looking forward to what his side can do and urged the players to “show up”, starting from the game against Hong Kong.

The 22-year-old said: “Everyone here wants to show their ability and use it (Merlion Cup) as a platform to show what we can do and who we are. Passion, desire and a never-say-die attitude is what we are going to show in every match.”

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