SINGAPORE – The Young Lions hunted and harried for 90 minutes, but lacked the finishing touch to break down a resilient Hong Kong Under-22 side as the home side fell 1-0 in Friday’s Merlion Cup semi-final.
Despite multiple shots on goal, Singapore’s U-22 team failed to convert any of their chances with striker Abdul Rasaq guilty of missing a trio of gilt-edged chances in front of 1,880 spectators at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
The hosts, led by head coach Philippe Aw, failed to retain their 2019 title; their first outright win in eight attempts since the tournament’s inception in 1982.
The defeat is an ominous sign ahead of the Republic’s upcoming May 5-17 Cambodia Games campaign. Since earning a bronze at the 2013 edition, Singapore have suffered four successive group-stage exits.
Aw suggested another decade of disappointment is in the offing. He said: “The boys pressed well and created chances but you need to score goals to win games. What is happening today is the cause of 10 years ago.
“I’ve been in Singapore football, coached for a long time and if we want success, we need to wait 10 years to see what we have put in place.
“We need to have more strikers in Singapore. It’s something that is affecting us. We have Rasaq and now Syahadat (Masnawi) as well but if you look younger – who are the strikers coming through?
“In the national team we have the Fandi brothers and after that we don’t have (anyone). We need to look at this from youth level to ensure there are enough strikers coming through.”
Aw’s 28-man squad, which comprised numerous uncapped players, featured only five players from the SEA Games team of 2022. Ryaan Sanizal is the only one of the five to be capped at senior level.
Aw added: “Even if we win the Merlion Cup, it does not guarantee we will do well in the SEA Games. I point you back in history – in 2019 when we won, we crashed out in the group stage.
“For me, this tournament is more about preparation to get a better understanding of the boys and for them to play at international level.”
The team’s inexperience showed from the first whistle. A nervy start gave Hong Kong the first opportunity of the game, with goalkeeper Aizil Yazid denying Sohgo Ichikawa in the eighth minute.
Regaining their composure, Singapore – playing a 4-3-3 formation – grew into the game and should have taken the lead if not for Lion City Sailors forward Rasaq misfiring a pair of good chances past the half hour mark.
After his close-range effort was blocked for a corner, Rasaq latched onto captain Harhys Stewart’s through ball but his tame strike in the six-yard area was parried by goalkeeper Ng Wai Him.
Against the run of play, the away side took the lead from a deep free kick in the 40th minute. Miscommunication between Ryaan and Aizil allowed Ichikawa to pounce on a loose ball.
The Young Lions created several chances in the second half but could not capitalise. Jordan Emaviwe, deployed as a left-winger, saw his 53rd-minute header from a corner saved by Ng. Minutes later, Nicky Melvin Singh’s flick came off the post, although the offside flag was raised, before Rasaq prodded wide from a loose ball.
In stoppage time, a hopeful long ball kindly fell into substitute Syahadat’s path, but the forward’s strike was stopped by Ng before Stewart’s follow-up was blocked.
Said Hong Kong head coach Szeto Man Chun: “The key to our success today is our fighting spirit.
“They sacrificed and the defenders covered for each other. Our high pressing in the first half was very successful but in the second half we were a bit more reactive.”
Hong Kong will face Malaysia, who beat Cambodia 4-2 in the other game, in Sunday’s final while Singapore meet the Cambodians in the earlier third-place play-off.