SINGAPORE – If there was still any doubt about how far Singapore football has declined, the national Under-22s’ 2-1 defeat by their Cambodian counterparts not only consigned them to last position in the Merlion Cup, but also confirmed their place among the regional minnows.
The Sunday match at Jalan Besar kicked off following a 40-minute delay due to lightning threat, but the visitors seemed unaffected and were quicker off the blocks.
In a rare moment of invention, Singapore left-back Adam Reefdy brought the ball down with a scorpion kick. But he turned over possession as Ky Rina outmuscled Ryaan Sanizal to head the ball to Vouen Va, who fired a right-footer in off the post to hand the visitors the lead in the 12th minute.
Instead of being stung into a positive response, the Young Lions’ deficiencies were laid bare for their opponents to see just a month before the SEA Games football tournament kicks off.
While there was no doubting their commitment, quality was sorely lacking in their many misplaced and mistimed passes, poor first touches and decision-making.
Physically, this tired out the players as they had to break stride or cover more ground with no end product in attack. They also had to make last-ditch tackles in defence and clearly looked frustrated to be on the back foot.
These are in stark contrast to the Cambodians’ swagger as they carved open the hosts time and again. Because of their good pace and technique on the ball, they were also able to effectively play a high line and reduce the playing area as well as distance to goal.
With Japan legend Keisuke Honda on the touchline as their inspirational general manager, it did not take long for 2023 SEA Games hosts Cambodia, who had at least 10 players capped at senior level compared to Singapore’s one (Ryaan), to extend their lead.
Chan Sarapich was first to reach a long punt forward by Lim Aarun Raymond and the knockdown was swept in by Ky in the 31st minute.
The introduction of Nicky Melvin Singh added a spark for Singapore in the second half. He forced Cambodia goalkeeper Reth Lyheng into a save before Adam’s shot was cleared off the line 10 minutes after the restart.
After their 1-0 defeat by the Hong Kong Under-22s on Friday, Young Lions coach Philippe Aw had noted that the decline – including a dearth of good strikers – was 10 years in the making and would take at least another decade to reverse.
He was proven right as his team struggled again to create or finish from open play. They did find a consolation, however, when defender-turned-striker Jordan Emaviwe planted a left-footed free kick beyond Reth in the 74th minute.
They would huff and puff for an equaliser but a combination of poor finishing and resolute defending meant the visitors, who have lost to Singapore in their seven previous SEA Games encounters by a combined score of 20-4, will head to the Games with hopes of improving on their historic fourth-placed finish in 2019.
The Republic, on the other hand, have it all to do if they are to make their first semi-final in 10 years.
Aw said: “Today we learn we cannot play a poor first half and expect to catch up in the second half. We need to carry out our game plan from the first whistle.
“We struggled with their switch of play, shifted too slowly and allowed gaps for them to exploit. We addressed this and played better in the second half, although the final pass was still lacking in the final third.
“It is no secret we have been struggling in age-group competitions for some time now as other countries have improved. The SEA Games will not be a simple assignment and we have to be realistic and manage expectations.”
Cambodia Under-22 coach Ryu Hirose was happy with the win and his players’ performance, as they executed the game plan and were able to play fast and positive football.
But he added: “We cannot get carried away because both teams were trying out different things as we prepare for the SEA Games and we need to keep improving.”
In the final, goals by Najmudin Akmal (74th minute) and Safwan Mazlan (79th) gave Malaysia Under-22s a cushion.
Although Lau Ka Kiu pulled one back immediately in the 80th minute for Hong Kong Under-22s, the Harimau Muda hung on to win the Merlion Cup.