U-19s have 'room for improvement'

There were signs of improvement, but the national Under-19 football team also reverted to familiar weaknesses during the Under-20 Asian Cup qualification campaign in Tajikistan last week.

The 23-player squad returned on Monday after finishing third in Group I behind the hosts and Lebanon, but ahead of Cambodia. Tajikistan were the group winners and the only team in the group to progress to next year's Finals in Uzbekistan.

The Cubs held Tajikistan to a 0-0 draw in their opening game and then drew 1-1 with Cambodia two days later, despite playing the final third of the game with a player down because of Raoul Suhaimi's red card in the 66th minute. They ended their campaign with a 6-1 thumping by Lebanon.

Head coach Fadzuhasny Juraimi said he felt the players had "progressed quite a bit" from their Asean Football Federation Under-19 Championship performance in July, when they lost to Cambodia (1-0), Timor-Leste (1-0) and Laos (3-1) but drew 0-0 with eventual champions Malaysia.

Asked for his assessment of their Asian Cup qualifying campaign, he said: "The boys played with fighting spirit and fought hard, especially in the first two games, and in general I am quite satisfied.

"The (Football Association of Singapore) Under-21 league kicked off (in late July) before we left, and it helped me and my backroom staff identify new players that could strengthen the squad and provide competition to the boys who were already in the squad previously.

"It also improved the players' match fitness a bit, compared to when we competed at the AFF Championship."

The former national striker highlighted, however, that three months' worth of competitive club-level matches were insufficient in getting his players to peak physical condition after almost two full years of not playing the full 11-a-side game due to pandemic restrictions. This was telling against Lebanon, which was the team's third match in five days.

"The boys need to adapt to this format, which is something they are not often exposed to," said the 43-year-old coach.

"They played two very high-level matches at a good intensity, but in the third game with fatigue setting in, lapses in concentration started happening and Lebanon took their chances... There is still a lot of room for improvement."

One of the team's best performers in Tajikistan, goalkeeper Aizil Yazid, said he was proud that the team produced "two big performances" and "showed a lot of character" but admitted the players were disappointed with how the campaign ended.

The son of former national shot-stopper Yazid Yasin added he and his teammates aim to bounce back from the bitter defeat by Lebanon, similar to how he gained motivation from conceding nine goals in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) against title-chasing Lion City Sailors on Aug 24.

"Going up against bigger, experienced, more skilled opponents in the SPL helped me mentally and physically... and the loss against the Sailors was one of the biggest lessons," said Aizil, who turns 18 in December and plays for Hougang United.

"To concede nine goals was a low point but it made me want to work harder to prevent a repeat. Having senior teammates like Zulfahmi (Arifin) and Zainol (Gulam) comfort me after that also helped me a lot to move on. Football can be unforgiving and quite tough for a young player.

"This year has been good for me. I have worked hard and made my SPL debut, and I have goals to be the first-choice goalkeeper consistently at Hougang and progress to the national U-21 squad for next year's SEA Games. It's going to be another big year for me ahead and I will keep working hard."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2022, with the headline U-19s have 'room for improvement'. Subscribe