Young Lions stay in hunt for finals

Singapore's Ikhsan Fandi (in blue), seen here in an earlier match against Hong Kong, scored a superb solo goal within a minute of kick-off against North Korea yesterday.
Singapore's Ikhsan Fandi (in blue), seen here in an earlier match against Hong Kong, scored a superb solo goal within a minute of kick-off against North Korea yesterday.PHOTO: MONGOLIAN FOOTBALL FEDERATION

National Under-23 football coach Fandi Ahmad hailed his side's 1-1 draw with North Korea in their AFC Under-23 Championship qualifier yesterday as their best performance since he took charge of the team in October 2016.

Ikhsan Fandi scored a superb solo goal within a minute of kick-off, but North Korea equalised six minutes later at the MFF Football Centre in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Singapore are third in Group G on two points from two matches, two points behind North Korea and Hong Kong, who beat hosts Mongolia 1-0 in the other match yesterday.

The Young Lions have a chance to top the group and qualify for the tournament finals for the first time if North Korea and Hong Kong play out a draw in their final game tomorrow and Fandi's boys beat Mongolia by more than one goal in a later game.

The 11 group winners and four best runners-up will qualify for the 2020 Under-23 Championship in Thailand in January. The top three finishers in the tournament will qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

Fandi told The Straits Times: "I've told the boys that miracles do happen, but we have to work to create them, too. All we can do now is work hard and enjoy the ride, and I'm happy to be on this journey with this bunch of players."

He was delighted by the effort and application his players showed against North Korea, who are ranked ninth out of 44 teams in the qualification tournament - Singapore are ranked 30th.

The 56-year-old's second son, Ikhsan, had put Singapore in front inside the first minute, latching on to a clever through pass by Hami Syahin and racing down the left flank before squeezing a shot inside the North Korean goalkeeper's near post.

Said Ikhsan, 19: "After Hami played that pass, I could hear everyone on the bench shouting 'take him on' so I just kept running at the defender towards goal, and shot.

"I didn't even see where the goal or goalkeeper was, my only thought was to get it on target."

But North Korea, who beat Mongolia last Friday, equalised in the seventh minute through a cool turn and finish by Park Kwang Hun.

But the 2016 Under-23 Championship quarter-finalists were unable to add a second goal as Fandi's side defended stoutly to deny their opponents clear-cut chances.

"North Korea are a very good team, but our boys battled till the very end, and we survived," said Fandi. "The tactical discipline was there, the boys coped very well.

"Now we look ahead to Mongolia and we will play to win. They are fighters but, tactically and technically, they are not stronger than us."

Sazali Abdul Aziz

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2019, with the headline 'Young Lions stay in hunt for finals'. Print Edition | Subscribe