SINGAPORE - For 76 minutes on Wednesday (June 9), it had seemed that the Singapore national team would secure a famous victory to significantly boost their chances of qualifying for the Asian Cup for only the second time in their history.
But two goals in the space of six minutes from hosts Kyrgyzstan saw the Lions fall 2-1 at the Dolen Omuzakov Stadium in Bishkek.
Singapore's sole appearance at the quadrennial continental showpiece came as hosts in 1984.
Head coach Takayuki Nishigaya said after the match: "I am very disappointed with the result but the players showed a very good performance so I am very proud of them."
The Japanese tactician however expressed his frustration at the Lions' failure to put away their chances - a similar gripe he had in his first match in charge - a 2-0 loss to Kuwait on June 1.
He said: "We created a lot of chances but we scored only one goal but I know we can score more. It is something I am confident we will improve on.
"We were able to put in a good performance against a strong side. We must continue this way. If we win the next two games, we can qualify. For now we must recover quickly and focus on the next game."
Singapore national captain Hariss Harun said the team cannot feel sorry for themselves.
He added: “We have to learn. After we took the lead, the legs were tiring and the mind was starting to go.
“Part of the process of growing as a team is to create a (better) mentality. We have to learn from this game.”
The 31-year-old, who plays at the heart of the defence for the Lions, has urged his teammates to learn from the late heartbreak and do better in the matches ahead.
He said: “Yes, we gave them a good game but we can’t just be happy with that. We need to take the three points.
“The team feel down because it is a tough result to take. But we still have games coming up and we have a lot to play for.
“We have to take the steps forward as a team and convert our promise into wins.”
Kyrgyzstan, at world No. 95, are the highest-ranked side in Group F and for most of the contest, it seemed that 158th-ranked Singapore had their opponents' number.
But the Lions, who opened the scoring in the 57th minute, could not hold on to the lead and will only have themselves to blame after missing a host of chances.
They will now need to recover quickly and register a positive result on Saturday against group leaders Tajikistan (114th), who beat Myanmar (152nd) 4-0. The Lions will finish the qualifiers with a tie against Myanmar next Tuesday.
Before kick-off, the Lions were handed a blow when midfielder Yasir Hanapi - who started in last week's 2-0 friendly loss to Kuwait - was ruled out after testing positive for Covid-19.
But Singapore showed their attacking intent from the get-go, creating two chances inside the opening five minutes.
The Lions were aggressive in their pressing and quick in transition and after near-misses from both sides, it was Singapore who took the lead when Irfan Fandi's long pass from inside his own half found a running Song Ui-young, who sat the Kyrgyzstan goalkeeper down with a feint before slotting into the empty net.
It was Song's second goal on his 10th appearance for the national team.
But as Singapore looked to hold on for a famous victory, Song inadvertently turned villain in the 77th minute after he was adjudged to have fouled Viktor Maier in the box. Kyrgyzstan captain Valery Kichin stepped up and scored the resulting penalty.
Just five minutes later, the home side completed their comeback. Maier found space and time in the box to turn and send the ball past a sea of Singapore defenders and Hassan Sunny.
Singapore had the ball in the back of the net in the 84th minute but the referee ruled Kyrgyzstan goalkeeper Erzhan Tokotayev had been fouled in the lead-up.
It was an unfortunate end to a night that had held so much promise at one point.
This was the first time that fans had been able to watch Nishigaya's Lions since he was appointed as head coach in April. And while the Lions fell to a defeat, it was, overall, a positive display against a side 63 places above the Lions in the world rankings.
While Nishigaya deployed the same 3-5-2 formation that his predecessor Tatsuma Yoshida had used, there was a clear focus on more aggressive pressing and a quick transition when the ball was recovered. This was seen from the eight seconds it took from them winning the ball back in their half to fashioning a half chance via Ikhsan Fandi just before half-time.
Nishigaya's tenure as Lions boss has started with back-to-back losses but the signs are that he is building a team in his identity. The hope is that the results will soon follow.