SINGAPORE - The Lions are in the Singapore team on merit, insisted V. Sundram Moorthy yesterday, as the national coach defended his decision to recall veterans to his 24-man squad.
He is preparing the Lions for a crucial Asian Cup qualifier against Turkmenistan next Tuesday with a friendly against Qatar on Thursday morning (Oct 5, Singapore time).
Sundram was responding to criticism from former Singapore coach Bernd Stange, who told the Today website on Wednesday that he is perplexed by his successor's decision to bring Daniel Bennett, 39, and Fahrudin Mustafic, 36, back into the international fold.
Bennett, a centre-back, is the country's most experienced player with a record 138 caps while Mustafic played 86 times for the Republic and has a reputation as a commanding midfielder.
Sundram told The Straits Times: "It's easy to comment and criticise the person in the hot seat. But I take such things in my stride and I will carry on doing my job to the best of my ability.
"Daniel is a veteran but he is as good as any Singaporean player out there. Age is just a number. He is in the team because he is good enough.
"Anyone who is not good enough will be phased out and to me, Daniel has been outstanding and I don't have anyone who is ready to replace him yet."
An S-League coach, who declined to be named, agreed, saying: "Daniel is still a very good player even though he is the oldest in the national team. Sundram picked him on merit.
"But Sundram's hands are tied, too. There is a limited pool of players available and many of those who made it to the national age-group teams are not good enough to be promoted yet."
Stange told Today: "I was really surprised that the current FAS (Football Association of Singapore) leaders would allow a coach to bring all the veterans back. I will never understand that.
"How can you have a friendly match against Argentina (Singapore lost 6-0) and put experienced players in the squad?
"This was a match for youngsters to get the experience and move forward. With 24 teams in the Asian Cup, Singapore must be there."
Singapore remain bottom of Group E of the third round of the 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers with two points after two draws and one loss. Bahrain lead the standings with seven points, followed by Turkmenistan (four points) and Chinese Taipei (three points). Only the top two in the group advance to the Finals.
But Sundram is setting the team a stern test with a sparring match against Qatar at Doha's Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium.
In 17 matches in charge since his appointment last May, the coach - who has earned a reputation for favouring defensive tactics - has won just twice, with the team scoring nine goals and never more than one strike per game.
But in last month's match against Turkmenistan at Jalan Besar Stadium, the 51-year-old switched to a more adventurous 3-4-3 system with overlapping wing-backs and attacks initiated by neat passing out of defence to earn a 1-1 draw.
However, this time, he is without his two flankers Shakir Hamzah (hip injury) and Nazrul Nazari (family commitments) but the man at the helm believes there are capable replacements.
Sundram said: "Hafiz (Sujad) and Faritz (Hameed) are experienced national players (36 and 24 caps respectively). And as this is a friendly, there is time, especially in the second half, to try out youngsters like Rusyaidi (Salime) and Shannon (Stephen).
"(The) Qatar (friendly) will be a good preparation for the Turkmenistan game. We have to get something out of that game. As long as we don't lose, we are still in the running (for Asian Cup qualification)."