SINGAPORE - Taking on vastly superior opponents without their spine of key players, the gulf in class was clear again as world No. 159 Singapore lost 5-0 to 86th-ranked Uzbekistan in a World Cup qualifier on Monday (June 7).
Following last Thursday's dispiriting 0-4 defeat to Palestine, Lions coach Tatsuma Yoshida made five changes to the starting line-up and switched to a back three, while Faris Ramli replaced Ilhan Fandi up front as the false nine.
But the result was similar - Singapore were 0-3 down at the break, conceded again in the second half, and had no shots on target, as they showed just how much they were missing the experienced defender Safuwan Baharudin, inspirational midfielder Hariss Harun, and predatory striker Ikhsan Fandi, who were unavailable due to injury and personal reasons.
Yoshida said that the Lions "were better than the previous match" but could not match their opponents' quality.
He said: "We made a few changes and I felt we did well before the first goal. After that goal, we lost a bit of motivation.
"There was a big difference in quality and their level was high, far from us. We can learn from them. They have quality and they ran a lot. We are not used to this intensity. We have to learn to keep on going."
Despite the Lions showing some aggression straight after kick-off, it took the Uzbeks just six minutes to rip up Yoshida's plans at the King Fahd International Stadium. Ikromjon Alibaev played an inch-perfect lofted pass to Jaloliddin Masharipov, who side-footed a first-time effort in off the post.
Masharipov then doubled the advantage with a disguised shot that fizzed in between Madhu Mohana's legs and beat Izwan Mahbud at his near post in the 35th minute, before Eldor Shomurodov, who plays for Serie A side Genoa, clinically shot into the bottom corner in first-half added time.
Uzbekistan captain Odil Ahmedov made it 4-0 by firing in at the near post five minutes after the restart, and Singapore's misery was compounded when Irfan Fandi deflected a cross into his own goal in the 89th minute, right after the Lions had a legitimate penalty claim from a clear handball turned down at the other end.
The result meant Singapore remain fourth in Group D with seven points from seven games and will not progress to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers by finishing in the top two.
They will play their final World Cup qualifier against Group D leaders and Asian powerhouses Saudi Arabia on Friday, and can still make it direct to the third round of Asian Cup qualifiers by finishing in third place, or as one of the four best fourth-placed teams from the eight groups.
Looking ahead, Yoshida outlined fitness as an area for improvement. He said: "Two years ago, I think our squad was fitter... We have to improve our intensity. We have to improve a lot."
Nobody gave the Lions any chance of beating Uzbekistan, but they should at least show more attacking endeavour.
Tatsuma Yoshida had earned plaudits for injecting confidence in the national team since taking over in June 2019, as they took the game to stronger middle eastern and central Asian teams in earlier matches and impressed.
A few months later at the National Stadium, they beat Palestine 2-1 and were tied 1-1 at half-time against Uzbekistan before losing 3-1.
But two years on, they have been unrecognisable in their last two games as they conceded nine goals without registering a single shot on target against the same opponents.
Singapore may be without key players Hariss, Safuwan and Ikhsan, but there is no excuse for low levels of fitness, poor positioning and decision-making, and lack of set-piece creativity - key ingredients required for lower-ranked teams to surprise superior sides.
Nobody expects Singapore to beat Saudi Arabia on Friday, but a better showing than their last two games is not too much to ask for.
Singapore v Saudi Arabia