2022 WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS
Tatsuma Yoshida has been Singapore's national football coach for only a little over three months, and last night he took his place on the bench for a Lions game for just the fourth time.
And yet, the Japanese tactician has managed to inject into the side confidence, speed and steel, which critics say have been sorely missing in the players for a long time.
All these characteristics were on display last night at the Jalan Besar Stadium, where Singapore stunned Palestine 2-1 to top their World Cup qualifying group. Palestine, ranked 102nd in Fifa's world rankings, sit 60 places higher than the Lions and had beaten Uzbekistan (84th) 2-0 in Ramallah last week.
Shakir Hamzah opened the scoring in the fourth minute, and while Palestine equalised through Yaser Hamed 10 minutes later, Safuwan Baharudin restored the lead before the break.
The Lions' big scalp follows a 2-2 opening draw with Yemen (142nd) at the National Stadium last week, in a game which they had played well enough to win handsomely, only to be undone by profligate finishing and defensive lapses.
Yoshida said he was grateful for the support of the 6,011 fans who packed the stands - the Football Association of Singapore announced four hours before kick-off that tickets were sold out - and saluted all his players for playing "very well and very tough".
No one personified this new-found toughness better than Hariss Harun. The skipper, making his 96th national team appearance, put in an all-action display and practically covered every inch of the artificial turf at Jalan Besar.
"Hariss is tough, and is a leader, and I feel tonight, he showed he was extra motivated to win," said Yoshida after the game.
The man of the match, as expected, preferred to lavish praise on his supporting cast.
"The boys wanted the win so much, and they showed they had the hunger and the fire to play their part," said the 28-year-old Johor Darul Takzim star.
LET'S KEEP IT UP
We will enjoy tonight, tomorrow, and maybe even next week, but we know this qualifying campaign is not just these two games. The challenge now is to have consistency and maintain this run.
HARISS HARUN, Singapore captain, steeling his men for tougher games to come.
"Maybe there were some lapses tonight, but we recovered and covered for each other, and that's what a team should do.
"We will enjoy tonight, tomorrow, and maybe even next week, but we know this qualifying campaign is not just these two games. The challenge now is to have consistency and maintain this run."
As in their draw with Yemen, the Lions started the game at breakneck speed, and struck early after Shakir was quickest to a loose ball on the edge of the Palestine penalty box and fired home with aplomb.
But Palestine, with three overseas-born players in their squad, equalised in the 14th minute through Spanish-born defender Yaser, who finished from close range after the ball bobbled fortuitously for him in the penalty box.
Singapore defender Safuwan, however, put the Republic back in front six minutes before half-time, rising highest at a corner kick to power a header home.
In the second half, Hariss and Co did not let up the intensity of their game.
Goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud pulled off a point-blank save from Islam Batran to preserve the team's lead in the 68th minute, while striker Ikhsan Fandi was a constant thorn in the sides of the Palestine defenders, and wing-back Nazrul Nazari never stopped running.
With the game finely balanced, both sets of players squared off in the dying moments of the match, but the home side kept their cool to see out the game and secure an excellent result.