SINGAPORE - The Lions were drawn into Group D for the second round of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, and it could well be the Group of Death for the Republic, as they were pooled with Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Palestine and Yemen in the draw at the AFC House in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday (July 17).
Singapore have often struggled against the bigger and technically superior Middle Eastern and central Asian teams, and have never beaten Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. They have not played Yemen before but have a favourable record of three wins, one draw and one loss against Palestine, although their last encounter was a 4-0 Singapore win in 2007.
Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida said: “We have got a tough group, in particular being drawn against Uzbekistan, who are one of the strongest teams from Pot 2. It’s a big challenge for us but it’s one we are looking forward to and we hope to have Singapore fans join us on this journey.”
Lions skipper Hariss Harun also acknowledged the tough draw, but added: “I would be lying if I said we are not behind these teams, but it is also not right to say we cannot get positive results from some of these games.
"We have to play such tough teams to improve, and being underdogs, we have to make the best of our situation and try to surprise.
"The World Cup may be out of reach, but we can still try to make it to the next round of the Asian Cup qualification. We have to be optimistic about giving a good account of ourselves."
With Group D mathematically the second-toughest cluster based on the Fifa world rankings (see below), Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida, who was at the draw with team manager Eric Ong, will surely have a huge task on his hands to progress to the next stage.
The eight group winners and the four best runners-up will advance to the third round, as well as the 2023 Asian Cup.
Thus, the second-round World Cup qualifiers also serve as 2023 Asian Cup qualifying matches, with the other four runners-up, eight third-placed teams, and best fourth-placed teams progressing to the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers.
The rest of the teams may still qualify for the Asian Cup if they progress from a play-off round.
If the Lions are to surprise, they will have to bank on good results from their first two matches, which are both at home against Yemen on Sept 5 and Palestine on Sept 10.
Singapore finished third in the same stage at the last edition, behind Japan and Syria, and ahead of Afghanistan and Cambodia. They won three games out of eight, and famously held the Samurai Blue to a 0-0 draw in Saitama in 2015.
Australia legend Tim Cahill was in charge of drawing the teams as 40 nations were placed in five pots based on their Fifa rankings as of June.
They were then drawn into eight groups of five, and will play each other home and away.
During the draw, the AFC House had buzzed with amusement as Cahill pulled out four Asean teams - Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia - into Group G with the United Arab Emirates, and quipped: "Everything that you asked for, I give you."
This means that there is a good chance another South-east Asian team could make it to the third round of World Cup qualifiers like Thailand did for the 2018 edition.
Group A: China (73), Syria (85), Philippines (126), Maldives (151), Guam (190)
Group B: Australia (43), Jordan (98), Chinese Taipei (125), Kuwait (156), Nepal (165)
Group C: Iran (20), Iraq (77), Bahrain (110), Hong Kong (141), Cambodia (169)
Group D: Saudi Arabia (69), Uzbekistan (82), Palestine (100), Yemen (144), Singapore (162)
Group E: Qatar (55), Oman (86), India (101), Afghanistan (149), Bangladesh (183)
Group F: Japan (28), Kyrgyzstan (95), Tajikistan (120), Myanmar (138), Mongolia (187)
Group G: United Arab Emirates (67), Vietnam (96), Thailand (116), Malaysia (159), Indonesia (160)
Group H: South Korea (37), Lebanon (86), North Korea (122), Turkmenistan (135), Sri Lanka (201)
Yemen (home, Sept 5), Palestine (home, Sept 10), Saudi Arabia (away, Oct 5), Uzbekistan (home, Oct 15), Yemen (away, Nov 19), Palestine (away, March 26), Saudi Arabia (home, March 31), Uzbekistan (away, June 4)