Water polo: Watch out for Thailand at SEA Games, warns Singapore coach Kan Aoyagi

Singapore's Lee Cheng Kang tussles for the ball with a Philippine player during the play-offs at the Asian Water Polo Championships on Sunday. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE – The power balance in South-east Asian water polo has shifted since pre-pandemic times with new challengers Thailand coming to the fore, said Singapore coach Kan Aoyagi.

The Japanese made the observation at the ongoing Asian Water Polo Championships at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, where Singapore beat the Philippines 18-6 on Sunday to set up Monday’s fifth-place match against Uzbekistan, whom they had defeated 11-10 in Group A last week.

Thailand finished fourth in the five-team tournament at the 2019 SEA Games, while the Republic placed third as their 52-year reign as champions ended following a loss to eventual winners Indonesia. Hosts Philippines were second.

But Thailand beat Singapore 4-2 on penalties after a 14-14 draw in regulation time last Thursday.

The Thais also became the only South-east Asian team to make it to the tournament’s semi-finals, qualifying them for the May 1-7 World Cup, Division 2 in Berlin, along with China, Kazakhstan and Iran.

Aoyagi, 42, said: “After the pandemic and after four years, Thailand have been preparing for the next SEA Games in 2025 and they have improved a lot, so we have to focus on Thailand.”

Despite their loss to Thailand, Aoyagi said the team are confident of winning the gold at the upcoming May 5-17 SEA Games in Cambodia.

“Our condition is good, our motivation is good, so we have confidence. We just have to continue working hard until the SEA Games.”

Team captain Lee Kai Yang, 28, who played in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 editions of the Games, said the team are aiming to reclaim their gold medal. 

He said: “Everyone knows it’s an even game and no one has a streak right now. Indonesia, the Philippines and even Thailand, we’re here as equal competitors.

“We are all confident from an intrinsic point of view, from the work that we’ve put in and the way we’re preparing hard for the SEA Games.”

Aoyagi also praised the team’s performance in beating the Philippines on Sunday, saying that they stuck to the game plan well despite a slow start. 

He said: “They played well from the start, but missed big chances. I think they were disappointed in themselves, chased the mistakes too much and didn’t focus on moving forward. I told them not to think too much.

“They were doing good in both attack and defence hence we just needed to continue to play.”

Singapore coach Kan Aoyagi praised the team’s performance in beating the Philippines, saying that they stuck to the game plan well despite a slow start. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The team were hanging on to a 5-3 lead at half-time but rallied in the second half, scoring 13 goals with quick counter-attacks while limiting the Filipinos to just three.

Lee said although the team played well, they struggled with transitioning between attacking and defending as communication fell through at certain points. 

He added: “But that’s part and parcel of competing. More importantly, throughout the whole tournament, the team have been improving in terms of executing our game plan and making fewer mistakes from game to game.”

Iran will meet China in the final on Monday after defeating the Thais 20-9 while the Chinese prevailed 10-1 against Kazakhstan in the semi-finals.

In the women’s competition, Singapore pipped Uzbekistan 8-7 to record their first win of this meet.

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