Lionesses bank on youth ahead of friendlies, AFF C'ship

Youth has been at the front line of Lionesses head coach Stephen Ng's approach for their last two competitions - last year's Asian Cup qualifiers and the SEA Games in May.

And it will be no different for the upcoming Asean Football Federation (AFF) Women's Championship, with 13 of the 28 players in his provisional squad for the competition aged 20 and younger.

"It's important for the national team to always have renewal. It's always good to develop and have young players coming in," said Ng, who was speaking at a press conference yesterday ahead of two friendlies against Hong Kong this week.

The games against Hong Kong today and Sunday at the Jalan Besar Stadium are part of Singapore's preparations for next month's AFF Women's Championship, where the Lionesses are in Group A with 2008 champions Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, hosts Philippines and four-time champions Thailand.

Ng's emphasis on youth is evident in 18-year-old defender Nurhidayu Naszri, who has established herself as a key part of the Lionesses' backline since her first call-up to the national team in September last year.

The teenager started in both games at the Asian Cup qualifiers in Tajikistan last year, and two of the three matches at last month's SEA Games.

While she fits in comfortably in the defence now, the step up to the senior side was initially tough for the former national Under-19 player, who was previously a defensive midfielder.

She said: "Because we're mostly defending so we don't really think of attack, so that transition to attack was one big challenge for me, to know what to do next. But slowly as we trained, we solved that and it's one of the things I improved a lot on."

The Institute of Technical Education College Central student also had to get used to the intensity of training and focus on team play, as compared with more individual and basic training in the youth team.

Nurhidayu credited Ng and senior players like captain Ernie Sulastri Sontaril, who taught her how to defend properly and what to do in certain situations, for helping her settle in.

She also put in extra hours in the gym to build her physique and worked on her touches and ball delivery whenever she could.

Experience at international competitions in the last few months has helped calm her nerves, as she remembered being very anxious on her national team debut against Indonesia at the Asian Cup qualifiers.

Nurhidayu said: "I didn't really expect to start because I'm one of the youngest and latest to join, but it's an honour to be part of the backline and starting line-up."

Against No. 78 Hong Kong, Ng is eager to watch his world No. 132 side test themselves against higher-ranked opponents.

He said: "At the SEA Games we were playing Asean teams. Now we have the opportunity to play an East Asian (team), which is good for us because it's definitely better than Asean football.

"I don't really look at ranking. Covid-19 played a part in the last two years, a lot of teams are doing a renewal of players so this is an opportunity to test where we are, the strength we have and the gaps we have going forward."

Hong Kong played their last international game at last year's Asian Cup qualifiers and head coach Jose Ricardo Rambo said his side are itching for action.

He said: "There were no competitions in September, stopping every activity is difficult because when you come back you need to readapt.

"The league has restarted so there are competitive games in the league, which has helped players prepare for it (the friendlies).

"The challenge is competitive games, which is why we organise this friendly...

"It's not been ideal but it's the best we can do."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2022, with the headline Lionesses bank on youth ahead of friendlies, AFF C'ship. Subscribe