SINGAPORE - A “nice and spicy” Causeway Derby awaits Singapore and Malaysia, after both teams were placed in Group B of the Dec 20-Jan 16 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship in the draw held in Bangkok on Tuesday (Aug 30).
As the tournament reverts to the home-and-away format for the group stage, which was introduced in 2018, the Lions will play Myanmar (at home on Dec 24), Laos (away, Dec 27), Vietnam (home, Dec 30) and Malaysia (Jan 3, away).
In all likelihood, their final group match could also decide who progresses to the last four with clear favourites Vietnam.
The Lions won their previous encounter against their neighbours 2-1 in a friendly at the National Stadium in March thanks to an Ikhsan Fandi double. Their last visit to Malaysia in 2019 saw a 1-0 success courtesy of a Faris Ramli winner.
Former Singapore coach Fandi Ahmad felt the draw was “balanced”, and tipped them to at least repeat their semi-final achievement from last year.
The 60-year-old, who is now technical adviser with Malaysia’s Sri Pahang, added: “No disrespect to Myanmar and Laos but it will be key for Singapore to start well and pick up six points with convincing wins in their first two matches, before the two matches against stronger opponents.
“Vietnam will be favourites but we must believe we can surprise them. Our depth may not be as strong as theirs but I think we have a decent starting XI that can compete with theirs and our home support can prove the difference.”
Fandi then touched on a key fixture-list quirk – Singapore will play four matches in 10 days, while Malaysia will have a six-day break after playing Vietnam on Dec 27 before they host the Lions.
He said: “If we need a result against Malaysia in our last match to progress, it looks 50-50 because of this.
“We cannot change the schedule, but we need to be disciplined not to incur unnecessary suspensions. Injury prevention and recovery will also be key, but I’m confident the national team have the know-how to make it to the semi-finals.”
With four titles in 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012, Singapore are the second-most successful side in AFF Championship history, behind six-time winners Thailand.
However, after their last triumph, the Lions did not progress from the group stage in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
They reached the semi-finals of last year’s edition – held in a centralised location, Singapore, due to the pandemic – where they lost to Indonesia in extra time after the scores were tied at 3-3 after two legs of regulation time.
Lions skipper Hariss Harun, 31, said the team will adopt an “underdog” mentality and fight for a place in the knockout rounds again.
The Lion City Sailors defender added: “We always aim to be better than before, but there is a fine line between confidence and complacency and we have to be on the right side of that line.
“Of course, the Malaysia game is the special match for both sides. It’s always nice and spicy but as we showed in March, we will be up for the occasion, playing in front of a huge crowd.”
Similarly, Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya has ambitions of leading the team to the final and “challenge for the trophy” in his first crack at an international tournament, but was also cautious.
He said: “We will not underestimate any team... and are eager to face our group-stage opponents. I know that all our players are looking forward to compete... and do the country proud.”
In the build-up to the AFF Championship, they will play friendlies against Vietnam and India, both of whom qualified for next year’s Asian Cup, in Ho Chi Minh City on Sept 21 and 24 respectively.
Meanwhile, defending champions Thailand, runners-up Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and either Brunei or Timor-Leste, who face each other in a play-off, were drawn in Group A.