Lions fall to Saudi in late collapse

Coach proud despite sloppy defence leaking 3 goals after denying Asian giants till 84th min

Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida says it was one of the best displays from the Lions (Shahdan Sulaiman above) since his appointment in May 2019.
Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida says it was one of the best displays from the Lions (Shahdan Sulaiman above) since his appointment in May 2019.PHOTO: FAS

For 83 minutes, Singapore dreamed of a stunning draw against Asian powerhouses Saudi Arabia in their final World Cup qualifier - as they did when they held Japan in 2015 - to end their campaign on a high.

But it was not to be as they were caught napping in the last 10 minutes to lose 3-0 to world No. 65 Saudi Arabia at the Mrsool Park in Riyadh on Friday night.

After 4-0 and 5-0 drubbings by Palestine and Uzbekistan respectively in the past week, many feared the worst for the 159th-ranked Singaporeans.

The Lions were also without four key players. Left-back Shakir Hamzah withdrew from the squad less than 36 hours before the tie, while skipper Hariss Harun (personal reasons), striker Ikhsan Fandi and centre-back Safuwan Baharudin were unavailable due to injuries.

Nevertheless, Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida made three changes to the starting line-up that lost to Uzbekistan on Monday, with Irfan Fandi and Amirul Adli replacing Baihakki Khaizan and Shakir in a five-man defence, and Hami Syahin coming in for Hazzuwan Halim in midfield.

As expected, Saudi Arabia dominated from the start, but were trigger-shy in front of goal as they went into the break goal-less.

At times, Singapore were reduced to late and last-ditch challenges to deny their superior opponents but also showed more organisation, urgency and bite to frustrate them.

Saudi striker Salem Al-Dawsari was lucky to remain on the pitch after lashing out at Hami in the second half, and the Lions could have even taken a shock lead in the 72nd minute when Mohammed Khalil Al-Owais spilled Zulfahmi Arifin's long-range free kick and Shawal Anuar struck the post from an acute angle in the follow-up.

However, they were brought back to earth as they reproduced the shoddy defending from their last two games late on.

No player in red tracked Al-Dawsari, who opened the scoring in the 84th minute after Saleh Khaled Al-Shehri's shot came back off the post.

Three minutes later, Amirul was slow to Hafiz Nor's back pass, allowing Fahad Al-Muwallad to ghost in and make it 2-0. Al-Shehri then added the third in the sixth minute of added time.

Despite the late collapse, Yoshida felt this was one of the best displays since his appointment in May 2019.

He said: "Their performance today was quite fantastic, I was very happy. Even though we lost, I am proud of them.

"Based on the boys' performance, we should have gotten at least a draw. But we have to accept the result.

"We must improve everything if we want to be at the top of Asean football. We have to improve and learn from these matches."

With the defeat, Singapore remain fourth in Group D with seven points from eight games.

While they will not advance in the World Cup qualifiers, they are in position to progress to the third round of Asian Cup qualification as one of the four best fourth-placed teams across the eight groups. That, provided bottom side Yemen (five points) do not beat Palestine on Tuesday.

Stand-in Lions captain Yasir Hanapi said: "We fought till the very end, just that we were unlucky to concede the first goal.

"Overall, we put in a much better performance than in the last two games and I'm proud of the boys for their effort.

"It shows that we can do it. We put our bodies in, we fought and we competed with them and that's what I am really proud of."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 13, 2021, with the headline 'Lions fall to Saudi in late collapse'. Subscribe