SINGAPORE - It may have been an international friendly in which both coaches fielded experimental sides. But the gulf between Singapore and Asean’s best still showed in a 4-0 defeat by hosts Vietnam on Wednesday.
It was clear that Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo and his Singapore counterpart Takayuki Nishigaya wanted to evaluate their options before their Asean Football Federation Championship Group B clash on Dec 30, as each started seven players with fewer than 15 caps at the Thong Nhat Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City.
For Singapore, this meant Ryaan Sanizal earned his second cap in a makeshift central defence alongside captain Hariss Harun and M. Anumanthan, with 14-cap Hafiz Nor playing at right wing-back.
Joshua Pereira, 24, received his first cap as part of an inexperienced central midfield trio featuring Adam Swandi (14 caps) and Shah Shahiran (five caps), while Taufik Suparno and Ilhan Fandi – both with three caps apiece – were deployed up front.
Before the match, both sides observed a minute’s silence in honour of Football Association of Singapore president Lim Kia Tong, who died on Sept 14.
For the first 30 minutes, the 159th-ranked Lions, who also wore black armbands, did well to restrict their world No. 97 opponents, as both teams struggled to keep possession. Hariss shot straight at goalkeeper Dang Van Lam, while Ilhan headed over from Shah’s nicely whipped free-kick.
But soon, Vietnam – Asean’s highest-ranked team who had lost just once in 22 previous matches to South-east Asian rivals since Park took over in 2017 – served a reminder of the gulf in quality.
Nham Manh Dung had already headed wide from Phan Tuan Tai’s 36th-minute cross after the Lions were careless in possession, but the warning was unheeded and Nguyen Van Quyet opened the scoring from range a minute later.
Singapore’s loose defending and Vietnam’s individual brilliance re-surfaced five minutes after the restart, when Ho Tan Tai had time to cross from the right wing.
While Hassan Sunny did well to palm the ball out to the other flank, substitute Nguyen Thanh Nhan strode forward to fire home an angled drive on his international debut.
More slack marking ensued as Tan Tai was allowed to head in fellow substitute Phan Van Duc’s pick-out in the 71st minute, before another sub, Khuat Van Khang, compounded the Lions’ misery 13 minutes later by sliding in on the dawdling Hariss to also score on his first appearance.
Post-match, Nishigaya was disappointed with the result but not with how some of his less seasoned players performed.
He said: “For example, I felt Joshua showed his ability to play at international level even though he still needs to improve on fitness.
“We played well in some parts, and we need to be more consistent with the good things we do, and minimise the bad things like losing one-v-one situations while defending.
The higher the level, the more likely we will get punished when we make mistakes.
“Hence, we need to maintain our concentration levels.”
Nishigaya’s squad selection had been hampered by illness, injuries and personal issues, but against a good team like Vietnam, it seemed suicidal to field such an inexperienced side and not play the likes of Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi at all.
In the absence of proven leaders in midfield and attack, the team looked lost and eventually the inadequacies filtered through to the back, where Hariss alone was not enough to carry Anumanthan, normally a midfielder, and international greenhorn Ryaan.
Explaining the older Fandi brothers were recovering from minor injuries, Nishigaya said: “We always aim to win matches but it is also important for the new and younger players to get minutes at this level.
“When opportunities to play international games are limited, we need to find the balance between fielding our best team and giving a chance to other players to see if they can perform at this level.”
The Lions play India at the same venue on Saturday and Nishigaya will be looking for an immediate response and hopefully inspiration from senior players such as the Fandis and Shahdan Sulaiman, who was unavailable against Vietnam as he was ill.
He said: “We will do what we can with what we have for now.”