Football: National coach Fandi Ahmad decided on 17 players for AFF Suzuki Cup, six more spots up for grabs

(From left) Baihakki Khaizan, Madhu Mohana, Gabriel Quak, Khairul Nizam, interim national coach Fandi Ahmad, Izzdin Shafiq (background) and player mentor Noh Alam Shah during a Lions training session. PHOTO: FAS

SINGAPORE - The arithmetic is simple - only six places are up for grabs in Singapore's 23-man squad bound for next month's AFF Suzuki Cup.

Interim national coach Fandi Ahmad did not hesitate when asked by The Straits Times on Thursday (Oct 11) on the number of players who had nailed down a spot for the Asean Football Federation tournament.

"Seventeen," was his immediate reply at the pre-match media conference at the Oasia Hotel Novena.

"It has been very competitive, every one wants to fight for his place in the team and I cannot fault the players' commitment."

Fandi was speaking ahead of Friday's friendly against Mongolia at Bishan Stadium.

He has selected a pool of 29 players for this match and another sparring game against Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.

The Lions are 166th in the Fifa world rankings while the Blue Wolves are 186th. The squad will be trimmed to 26 ahead of a training tour of Japan this month before the final 23 names are registered for the AFF Cup, where Singapore are in Group B alongside defending champions Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste.

The scramble for the remaining slots has seen some notable absentees in Fandi's current selection.

Playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman, with 55 caps, is struggling with a hamstring injury and not picked. Also missing out are defender Anders Aplin, who has yet to see competitive action on loan at Japanese second-tier club Matsumoto Yamaga, and Young Lions forward Hami Syahin, touted as a future prospect, failing to impress.

Winger Gabriel Quak attested to the tough fight for places, saying: "It is very tense and competitive among the 29 players. It's good to give the coach a selection headache and every one has his own fair share of playing time, so we know there are opportunities."

The 27-year-old boosted his hopes of making the final squad in September's 2-0 friendly win over Fiji, where his defence-splitting pass from inside his own half helped set up Ikhsan Fandi for the second goal.

And it is such incisive play that has Fandi tinkering with the idea of fielding Quak as a playmaker.

The tactician said: "I'm still looking for a No. 10. I will be trying a few faces in that role, players like Iqbal (Hussain), Adam (Swandi) and Gabriel."

Mongolia coach Michael Weiss has previous experience facing the Lions, having led the Philippines from 2011 to 2014. Then, Singapore defeated the Azkals 1-0 on aggregate in the 2012 AFF Cup semi-finals en route to lifting the title.

Asked to compare the Singapore team then and now, the German replied: "In 2012, Singapore had foreign-born players like (Aleksandar) Duric, Fara (Fahrudin Mustafic) and (Daniel) Bennett.

"But now, they have young (local) ones coming up who have big experience playing in the Thai and Malaysian leagues.

"Also, this team attack more and I can see the coach building the side around this base of experienced players. It is interesting for their future.

"On paper, Thailand and the Philippines or Indonesia look like the favourites, but Singapore have the same chances. If Singapore can get a good result against the Philippines (in the second group game on Nov 13), anything is possible."

While Weiss praised Fandi's positive style of football, the coach believes that it is virtues like hard work and discipline which will see the team through.

"We need to be a solid and compact team. Technically, we cannot improve much before the tournament, but we can make up for it with tactical discipline," he said.

"Other opponents might look down on us now because we are weak, but we will surprise them. We are not afraid."

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