SINGAPORE - For 83 minutes, the Lions dreamed of a stunning draw against Asian powerhouses Saudi Arabia in their final World Cup qualifier, like they did when they held Japan in 2015, to end their campaign on a high.
But it was not to be as they were caught napping in the last 10 minutes of the game to lose 3-0 to world No. 65 Saudis at the Mrsool Park in Riyadh on Friday (June 11).
After 4-0 and 5-0 drubbings by Palestine and Uzbekistan respectively in the past week, many feared the worst for 159th-ranked Singapore.
The Lions were also without four key players. Left-back Shakir Hamzah withdrew from the squad less than 36 hours before the tie, while skipper Hariss Harun (personal reasons), striker Ikhsan Fandi and centre-back Safuwan Baharudin (injuries) were unavailable.
Nevertheless, Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida made three changes to the starting line-up that lost to Uzbekistan on Monday, with Irfan Fandi and Amirul Adli replacing Baihakki Khaizan and Shakir in a five-man defence, and Hami Syahin coming in for Hazzuwan Halim in midfield.
As expected, Saudi Arabia dominated the game from the start, but were trigger-shy in front of goal as they went into the break goalless.
At times, Singapore were reduced to late and last-ditch challenges to deny their superior opponents, but also showed more organisation, urgency and bite to frustrate them.
Saudi striker Salem Al-Dawsari was lucky to remain on the pitch after lashing out at Hami Syahin in the second half and the Lions could have even taken a shock lead in the 72nd minute when Mohammed Khalil spilled Zulfahmi Arifin's long-range free-kick and Shawal Anuar struck the post from an acute angle in the follow-up.
However, they were brought back to earth as they reproduced the shoddy defending from their last two games late on.
No player in red tracked Al-Dawsari, who opened the scoring in the 84th minute after Saleh Khalid's shot came back off the post. Three minutes later, Amirul Adli was slow to Hafiz Nor's back pass, allowing Fahad Al-Muwallad to ghost in and make it 2-0. Saleh Al-Shehri then added the third in the sixth minute of added time.
Despite the late collapse, Yoshida felt this was one of the best displays since his appointment in May 2019.
He said: "Their performance today was quite fantastic, I was very happy. Even though we lost, I am proud of them.
"Based on the boys' performance, we should have gotten at least a draw. But we have to accept the result. We must improve everything if we want to be at the top of Asean football. We have to improve and learn from these matches."
With the defeat, Singapore remain fourth in Group D with seven points from eight games. While they will not advance in the World Cup qualifiers, they are currently in position to progress to the third round of Asian Cup qualification as one of the four best fourth-placed teams across the eight groups, provided Yemen do not beat Palestine on Tuesday.
While they rallied to put up a defiant showing against Saudi Arabia, the strongest team in their group, the Lions have largely disappointed in Riyadh.
Before the trio of losses in the past nine days, Yoshida's team had made a bright start to the campaign as they registered seven points from five games against higher-ranked opponents.
But since they resumed action after the Covid-19 enforced disruption, they have shipped 12 goals, scored none, and managed just one shot on target in three games.
The missing personnel and lack of training time together are mitigating factors but Yoshida had targeted four points from these three matches, so this trip must be considered a failure.
Their next assignment will be the year-end AFF Suzuki Cup, and Singapore have much to improve on, such as creativity and fitness, if they are to avoid a fourth consecutive group-stage exit.