Football: Lions put aside the negatives ahead of looming World Cup qualifiers

Hariss Harun in Singapore's World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan in October 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Desert-like conditions and the absence of key men - Singapore's footballers could be forgiven for going into next week's World Cup Group D qualifiers with a defeatist attitude.

But in reality, the Lions are raring to go. After all, their last outing as a national team was in November 2019, a 2-1 away win against Yemen in a World Cup qualifier.

Tatsuma Yoshida's men, who arrived in Dubai on Tuesday (May 25) for a centralised training camp, will take on Afghanistan in a training match at the JA Sports Centre on Saturday (May 29) in Dubai, where temperatures are expected to hit 37 deg C before kick-off.

It is hoped that the match will help them to adjust to the conditions before next week's qualifiers in Riyadh, where the temperature is expected to be past 40 deg C.

The Lions will travel to the Saudi capital on Sunday to face Group D opponents Palestine (June 3), Uzbekistan (June 7) and the hosts (June 11).

Said veteran goalkeeper Hassan Sunny: "Our last game was more than a year ago and if you ask any of the players, they will tell you that they can't wait to get going again.

"The weather and everything else are just things we have to take into our stride. We have had a few sessions here to help us get adjusted to the conditions. It'll be tough but every player here is determined to go into the matches with a mindset of giving everything we have."

Besides the weather, the Lions have also had to cope with the risks and restrictions associated with travelling during the pandemic.

Precautions for this tour include having the players, who usually stay in pairs when they are overseas, all in individual rooms. They interact with one another only during meal times and training sessions.

M. Anumanthan, who plies his trade in the Malaysian Super League with Kedah, has brought along his PlayStation 5 and spends his free time playing video games.

He said: "The mood here is really positive and everyone is eager to just get out on the field and play.

"It's easy to talk about the negatives and how we are away from the family and all but it's also important to note that this is also a chance to have a fresh state of mind for the local-based players, especially because they've been stuck in Singapore for some time. It's not a bad idea to be away to represent the country.

"It's a situation we have to adapt to and overcome. We don't always get what we want in life. What we can do is to give our best and fight hard to get good results in the matches while we are here."

Coach Yoshida will be without the services of at least four key members of the squad in the match with Afghanistan - injured duo Ikhsan Fandi and Safuwan Baharudin, skipper Hariss Harun and experienced defender Baihakki Khaizan.

But both Hariss and Baihakki will join the squad in Riyadh next week as they were given permission to arrive later due to personal reasons.

But just like his charges, Yoshida, 46, is not fazed by the challenges ahead.

The Japanese said the mood in camp has been great, adding: "The Afghanistan match is a good one for us to look at a few options in attack. We don't have a like-for-like replacement for Ikhsan but we have players with different abilities and skill-sets.

"I want our players to take the initiative in the match even as they build up their match fitness."

After five games, the Lions are third with seven points behind leaders Saudi Arabia (11 points) and Uzbekistan (nine points). The group winners and the best four runners-up from the eight groups qualify for the Asian Cup and progress to the third round of qualifying for next year's World Cup. But the remaining teams will still have chances to qualify for the Asian Cup via various other permutations.

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