Stange eyes only Asian Cup

Bernd Stange, with skipper Hariss Harun, feels Singapore can beat Syria even though the track record is not good against Mideast teams.
Bernd Stange, with skipper Hariss Harun, feels Singapore can beat Syria even though the track record is not good against Mideast teams.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

He does not feel Lions can advance to World Cup, ahead of tonight's qualifier against Syria

It appears national teams head coach Bernd Stange is already flying the white flag for Singapore's 2018 World Cup campaign.

Instead, the immediate goal is to make it to the Asian Cup in 2019, a tournament Singapore last featured in in 1984, when the Lions qualified automatically as hosts.

Speaking at a press conference at the Amara Hotel yesterday ahead of tonight's Group E match against Syria, the German tactician insisted that the World Cup dream is out of Singapore's reach.

He declared: "I want to make it absolutely clear: Our objective is to reach the Asian Cup.

 

"It is definitely not in our system that we put ourselves under enormous pressure to reach the World Cup, or to go to the next round (of World Cup qualifiers).

"That is possible but our ecosystem doesn't allow us at this stage."

Stange appeared to be content to just qualify for the continental Finals, even though his side still stand an outside chance of making it to the next round of World Cup qualifying - a feat that they have never accomplished.

"Ten points in our group is a great achievement. We have achieved what we wanted, even though some performances are painful."

The Lions are third in the five-team Group E with 10 points from six games, two points adrift of Syria (five games). Table-toppers Japan have 13 points after five games.

Afghanistan are fourth with six points from as many matches while cellar-dwellers Cambodia have yet to pick up a point after six games.

As the 2018 World Cup qualifiers also double up as Asian Cup qualifiers, the winners of the eight Asian qualifying groups, together with the four best runners-up, will also advance to the Asian Cup Finals.

Lions midfielder Hariss Harun said: "We play every game to win, no matter what's the scale of the game. The World Cup is not easy (to qualify for). The qualifiers are the top teams, and we hope to improve.

"But for the time being, the Asian Cup is our main aim now."

Turning towards tonight's game, Stange conceded that there is a gulf between Singapore and teams from the Middle East.

The Lions have played Middle Eastern outfits 17 times since 2009 but have won only once - a 2-1 victory over tonight's opponents in an Asian Cup qualifier at home in 2013.

Stange said: "We have to be realistic, we are not in their level... Their players are physically stronger and more dominating."

Yet he is optimistic that his squad, ranked 152nd in the world, can beat Syria (132nd), following a narrow 0-1 loss to the same opponents in an earlier match in September in neutral venue Oman.

"I didn't feel a big difference when we played that away game. I am not afraid... We are coming closer to the Middle Eastern teams."

Syria's national coach Fajr Ibrahim noted Singapore's progress on the pitch but said he is out to avenge that 1-2 defeat from 2013.

"Now is the best time for Singapore team. I think they have a great coach. Day by day, they will improve. This is the first time I see Singapore team at this level.

"We lost the last time we came here. Now, we are here to win."

Singapore will be missing defender Shaiful Esah, who will sit out as Tampines Rovers prepare for their final S-League match of the season against Harimau Muda on Saturday.

He lamented: "I'm quite disappointed that I won't get to help the team. Country and club are different. Country comes first."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Stange eyes only Asian Cup'. Print Edition | Subscribe