SINGAPORE - Lions coach Tatsuma Yoshida was full of praise for the players who stepped up into leadership roles in the absence of key seniors, as Singapore drew 1-1 with Afghanistan in a training match in Dubai on Saturday (May 29) night.
In a Zoom interview a day after the game, he added that the match - which was the first 90 minutes of football for the national team since November 2019 - had helped make him "90 per cent" sure of the first XI he intends to field in the World Cup second-round qualifier against Palestine on June 3.
The Palestine tie will be the first of three Group D qualifiers Singapore will play in Saudi Arabia, ahead of Uzbekistan (June 7) and the hosts (June 11).
However, the Japanese coach said he was "unhappy" at the way his team conceded the goal with virtually the last touch of the game, which was played at the Iranian Club Dubai.
A headed goal by Zubair Amiri - one of 13 Europe-based players in Afghanistan's 26-man squad - cancelled out Gabriel Quak's first-half strike.
"We should have closed the game better," said Yoshida. "We (conceded from) a counter-attack when we did not need to go forward. The boys tried to score a second goal, and they were aggressive… but I think during this time, we should have maintained our organisation and not given (Afghanistan) the opportunity."
Midfielder Shahdan Sulaiman, who was not on the pitch when the equaliser was conceded, said: "It was disappointing to hold on to the lead for so long only to concede in the very last minute.
"But knowing the feeling of how three points can turn into one, will definitely have a major influence on us and it is something we will learn from."
The late goal aside, Yoshida said he was pleased with many aspects of the Lions' performance in the game, which featured unlimited substitutions and does not count as an official cap for players.
He singled out players like midfielder Yasir Hanapi, who started the game as skipper, and defender Madhu Mohana, who wore the armband in the second half, as well as Shahdan and goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud for providing leadership to the team in the absence of key regulars.
Skipper Hariss Harun, 30, and defender Baihakki Khaizan, 37, who combine for 238 caps, missed Saturday's game for personal reasons but will join the squad in Saudi Arabia.
Defensive stalwart Safuwan Baharudin, who has 96 caps, is not a part of the squad as a precaution after suffering a concussion, while 22-year-old striker Ikhsan Fandi, who has established himself as the Lions' chief striker with eight goals in 18 appearances, withdrew from the squad because of a knee injury.
Yoshida noted that it was the first time since he became Lions coach in May 2019 that he has had so many senior players unavailable, but added he was "not thinking about who does not join us".
The coach also said he was encouraged by the way his team looked going forward, after throwing 18-year-old Ilhan Fandi - Ikhsan's brother and the third of local football icon Fandi Ahmad's sons to earn a senior call-up - into the deep end as his replacement in the starting XI against Afghanistan.
"We have to play without Ikhsan so we have to… play more collectively," said Yoshida, who experimented with winger Faris Ramli as a forward in the second half. "I think our games in Saudi Arabia will be interesting."
Young Ilhan said he enjoyed his first taste of international football, and was champing at the bit to make his official senior debut for Singapore in the qualifiers.
"Men's international football is really intense, but I went out there just giving my best and it felt good playing with the senior players," he said. "If coach puts me in the starting XI for the (qualification matches), I will give my 100 per cent again, but I'm not rushing into anything and he knows best for me and the team. Even if my first cap does not come so soon, but the team play well, that's all that matters."
Shahdan said Ilhan and attacking midfielder Saifullah Akbar, 22, "did not look out of place" against the Afghans. He also hoped the positive showing against the team ranked 149th in the world - 10 places above the Lions - would put them in good stead for the upcoming competitive games.
The 32-year-old playmaker was one of six players who started the Lions’ last official match, a 2-1 win over Yemen in November 2019, and also against Afghanistan.
"It's still too early to say we've found the flow again because it's been almost 1½ years and this is just one training match, but we showed good signs and hopefully during the qualifiers we can get back the rhythm we had," he said.
Yoshida has set his side a target of four points from the final three qualifiers, as the Lions hope to finish among the top two in their qualification group to stand a chance of progressing into the next round of qualifiers. Up to five best second-placed teams will join the eight group winners in the third round, which will also earn them a berth at the 2023 Asian Cup in China.
Singapore sit third in the five-team pool with seven points from five matches, two adrift of Uzbekistan and four behind group leaders Saudi Arabia.