Football: Second-string Lions draw 1-1 with Hong Kong in first outing since AFF C’ship failure

Singapore defender Lionel Tan (left) had an eventful senior debut as he gave the Lions a 20th-minute lead, only to send the ball into his own goal 23 minutes later in the 1-1 draw at Hong Kong. PHOTO: FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION OF SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE – With a goal at each end, defender Lionel Tan had an unforgettable Lions debut as an under-strength Singapore held Hong Kong to a 1-1 draw at the sold-out Mong Kok Stadium on Thursday.

This was the Lions’ first match since their abysmal 4-1 defeat by Causeway rivals Malaysia in January that eliminated them from the Asean Football Federation Championship.

National coach Takayuki Nishigaya had demanded a response, urging his players to raise their intensity of play and adopt a winning and professional mentality.

But the visitors initially found it hard to settle, and were not helped by a long injury list that includes key players Shahdan Sulaiman, Song Ui-young, and brothers Irfan, Ikhsan and Ilhan Fandi. Skipper Hariss Harun was also allowed to sit out to prepare for an exam, while Safuwan Baharudin and Shawal Anuar were not called up.

Their absence meant the overall quality of play took a hit as Singapore initially looked to soak and strike with an unfamiliar backline that featured M. Anumanthan and Tan at centre-back, with fellow debutant Irfan Najeeb and Glenn Kweh looking uncertain and uncomfortable at right- and left-back before growing into the game.

While they lacked ideas going forward in this 4-5-1 formation, they protected their goal zealously and goalkeeper Hassan Sunny was forced into a save just once in the opening exchanges to prevent Tsui Wang Kit’s cross from being turned in by Anumanthan.

Against the run of play, world No. 160 Singapore opened the scoring from a well-worked set-piece in the 20th minute.

Zulfahmi Arifin delayed his delivery to call for Taufik Suparno to make a late run at the near post, and his pinpoint pass was matched by Taufik’s clever flick for Tan to sweep the ball in.

They almost doubled their lead three minutes later, but Sahil Suhaimi latched on to a long punt only to shoot straight at former Brazil Under-17 goalkeeper Paulo Cesar, one of five players born outside Hong Kong to feature for the hosts.

The hosts’ pressure down the flanks finally paid off in the 43rd minute when China-born midfielder Ju Yingzhi beat Kweh on the right to whip in a cross that was diverted past Hassan by Tan.

Said Tan, 25: “We did work on set-piece routines. Goals are rare for me, but my intention was just to attack the ball, and I’m grateful to be able to score on my debut.

“As for the own goal, it is never nice to score one, and I can improve on my body positioning, but overall, I didn’t feel nervous or pressured, and I think we defended well as a unit.”

In-form attackers Faris Ramli and Daniel Goh added thrust when they were introduced in the second half, with Balestier Khalsa winger Goh almost notching an assist on his debut when he beat Wong Tsz Ho on the right to cross for Sahil, who headed into the side netting on the hour mark.

But Singapore still required stand-in skipper Hassan to make two fine stops to deny Wong Wai and Philip Chan for an encouraging draw against a side ranked 14 places above them, before they visit 182nd-ranked Macau on Sunday.

Said Nishigaya: “I’m happy with the debutants, and I felt they stepped up tonight.

“Lionel put in a very good 90 minutes and showed strong mentality to overcome his own goal, Irfan grew into the game and was more of an attacking outlet in the second half, while Daniel kept running in the second half and put in some good crosses.”

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