Football: Lions to play 5-time champions Thailand in AFF Suzuki Cup group stage

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SINGAPORE - Old foes Singapore and the Philippines will meet again at the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup in December, and their Group A showdown will most likely determine who will make it to the semi-finals.

At the virtual draw on Tuesday (Sept 21), Singapore were picked to play five-time winners Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines and the winners of a single-leg qualifier between Brunei and Timor Leste.

In Group B, defending champions Vietnam are pooled with Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos.

It will be national coach Tatsuma Yoshida's first major tournament and he has demanded title ambition, saying: "I heard about the Suzuki Cup while I was in Japan and I know it is an important tournament in Southeast Asia and to Singapore fans, so I am greatly looking forward to the tournament with my boys.

"We should be ambitious, give our best and always aim to be a challenger for the trophy, but we should also take each match as it comes and target to progress out of the group first... we will not underestimate any side."

But first the Lions will need to finish in the top two of their group to advance. Former Singapore defender and football pundit R. Sasikumar, who scored the winning goal in Singapore's 1-0 win over Vietnam in the 1998 final, noted that the game against the Philippines will be crucial.

Calling it a good draw for the Lions, he said: "Realistically, Thailand are way ahead of us, but I would rather have them than Vietnam, who are in a different class rubbing shoulders competing against Australia and Saudi Arabia in the third round of the World Cup qualifiers.

"So it's between Singapore, Myanmar and the Philippines... Myanmar are no pushovers, and we lost 2-1 to them in 2019. But the Philippines have also really improved over the years with their recruitment of mixed heritage players to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, and our game against them could be pivotal."

Singapore edged the Philippines 1-0 in the two-legged semi-finals in 2012, but could not beat them in group-stage matches at the 2010, 2016 and 2018 editions.

Azkals coach Scott Cooper praised the Lions as "well-organised", while their media officer Cedelf Tupas, who covered the last five tournaments for Philippine Daily Inquirer, felt the Philippines should feel confident against Singapore based on their improvements and recent track record.

He added: "More than a decade ago, Singapore would be heavily favoured, but times have changed and the Azkals have improved significantly, while the current Lions team have not duplicated the success of their predecessors.

"But if the recent World Cup qualifiers were an indication of Singapore's organisation and discipline, the Philippines-Singapore clash could possibly be the decider for the semi-final spot."

Unlike the 2018 edition that was decentralised, the upcoming tournament will be held in one country to minimise travelling during the ongoing pandemic.

The Straits Times understands that Singapore and Thailand are favourites to host the Dec 5-Jan 1 tournament, and AFF president Khiev Sameth shared that organisers are in the final stage of selecting the host, which should be unveiled in a few weeks.

Regardless, the Lions are just glad to be able to resume competition after the event was delayed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lions will begin centralised training after the Singapore Premier League season ends on Oct 10, following an eight-day delay due to fixture rescheduling after a few Covid-19 cases.

Lions skipper Hariss Harun said: "Under Coach Tatsuma, we were playing with freedom and belief before Covid struck. We have had to start all over again during the pandemic, and we want to rediscover that form and momentum."

But there could be a tussle for the services of Ikhsan Fandi as the Norwegian First Division regular season ends on Nov 27 with the possibility of playoffs after that. Jerv are not obliged to release Ikhsan because the AFF Championship does not fall within Fifa's international football window.

Sasikumar said: "We have a good core of players in our goalkeepers, Safuwan (Baharudin), Hariss and Ikhsan.

"But Ikhsan is irreplaceable. He is our main target man and one of the top No. 9s in the region. If we don't have him, we will miss our main goalscorer and in all likelihood our chance of qualifying."

With four titles won from the 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012 editions, Singapore are the second most successful side in AFF Championship history, one behind Thailand.

However, after their last triumph, the Lions were knocked out in the group stage in 2014, 2016 and 2018.

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