Football: Singapore aim for surprise at U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers

The Singapore under-22 football team training at Geylang field on Oct 23, 2021. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Singapore's Under-22 football team come up against defending champions South Korea, emerging Asean teams Philippines and Timor-Leste in the 2022 Under-23 Asian Cup qualifiers, but coach Nazri Nasir insists his team will not sit back in their Group H games.

At a press conference on Sunday (Oct 24), he said: "After centralised training in June, September and October, we now have a team that are well-balanced physically and tactically, and our players understand the team philosophy, which is positive, attacking football.

"I believe in my team. We don't want to sit back and wait to be attacked. We have home ground advantage and good support from our fans, we want to entertain them."

Under Covid-19 restrictions, a maximum of 1,000 fans will be allowed into Jalan Besar Stadium for the Oct 25-31 competition and the Singapore matches are sold out ahead of their clash against Timor-Leste on Monday.

Lion City Sailors midfielder Saifullah Akbar, 22, said: "In 2019, I had players like Lionel Tan telling me it was their last campaign, and now I know how they feel.

"I will put my heart and soul into this because I won't be able to turn back time (and play in another such event), so I want to make sure I have no regrets and make full use of this opportunity."

In 2019, the Young Lions narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2020 Under-23 Asian Cup for the first time after beating Mongolia and drawing against North Korea and Hong Kong.

This year's challenge is arguably tougher, as South Korea have picked six players who finished second at the 2019 Under-20 World Cup. In their squad of 23, 11 come from K League 1 clubs and the others are from the second division.

Their target is clear, as coach Hwang Sun-hong said: "There will be pressure on us as favourites, but the aim is to win all three games."

Consequently, Philippines coach Scott Cooper feels his team can play freely as underdogs.

With a clear plan to scout for foreign-born and overseas-based players with Filipino heritage, he has been able to assemble a strong squad in recent years. Skipper Oliver Bias was born in Germany and had played for RB Leipzig and the Germany national youth teams, for example.

The formation of the Azkals Development Team, similar to the Young Lions who play in the Singapore Premier League, also helped to build understanding, which showed when they beat the Yemen Olympic team 2-0 during a two-week training camp in Qatar before arriving in Singapore.

Cooper said: "We have a nice balance of players who already played for the Azkals and some new players coming through from professional clubs. The key is everyone is Filipino, everyone is dedicated. We will find out when it comes down to the crunch in the group just what quality and depth we have."

Timor-Leste are also not about to roll over despite fielding a young squad with an average age of 18.5 years. Due to the pandemic, the semi-professional leagues there were suspended and the players were scouted from last year's Copa FFTL which featured 20 teams.

Their coach Fabio da Silva said: "When I came back in 2020, we had to revamp the national team because the previous results were not good and I had to give a chance to the young talents. We have many young talents and we can surprise in this competition."

Singapore U-22 players to watch

Nur Adam Abdullah, 20

Nur Adam Abdullah. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Position: Left-back
Club: Lion City Sailors
Jersey number: 22

Personifying the never-say-die attitude, Singapore Premier League champion Adam was part of the Under-22s in the previous qualifying campaign in 2019 but did not make a single appearance.

But a breakout season for the Sailors has changed all that as the marauding full-back will be one of the key players for the team after showing his consistency in defence and attack and winning the Young Player of the Year award.

His tough tackling will be required to stop opposition wingers and he will also bomb forward when he can to swing crosses in from wide positions.

Jordan Emaviwe, 20


Position: Centre-back
Club: Young Lions
Jersey number: 3

Emaviwe, whose father is Nigerian and late mother was Singaporean-Chinese, made his professional debut with Balestier Khalsa last year before joining the Young Lions.

The 1.93m left-footer spent three years developing at Swiss second-tier side Chiasso and can play at central defence and midfield.

This is his first international call-up at any level as he looks set to make a late push for a starting berth.

Harhys Stewart, 20


Position: Defensive midfielder
Club: Young Lions
Jersey number: 23

Born to a Welsh father and Malay mother, Harhys' elder brother - 21-year-old defender Ryhan - is also his club-mate.

The duo had lived and trained in Dubai and Finland before returning to Singapore in 2015.

A deep-lying midfielder, Harhys typically marshals the defence and is not averse to making late runs into the box, as shown by his two goals in 17 league games this season.

Glenn Kweh, 21


Position: Forward
Club: Young Lions
Jersey number: 17

A striker with a keen eye for goal, Kweh marked his SPL debut by scoring just three minutes after coming on in the 1-1 draw against Hougang United in April.

In 10 league appearances, three as a starter, he managed to score twice.

Intelligent, composed and possessing a cultured left foot, Kweh is one of the team's striking options that include Zikos Chua and Khairin Nadim.

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