To compete in the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup not only means playing in impressive arenas like the National Stadium or Bangkok’s Rajamangala, but it also entails long trips to more rustic locations.
And in a setting like Bacolod’s Panaad Stadium, a compact, 7,000-seater ground where chipped paint, cobwebs and lizard droppings are part of its charm, the Lions came unstuck, losing 1-0 to the Philippines in a Group B fixture last night.
In a physical game littered with body checks and hard tackles, the Lions fought hard but in a moment described by interim national coach Fandi Ahmad as “sloppy”, a 78th-minute throw-in from the hosts’ right flank somehow bobbled past a sea of red shirts, allowing Germany-born forward Patrick Reichelt to shoot under the body of goalkeeper Hassan Sunny and into the net for the winner.
“A draw would have been a good result and we are disappointed that we didn’t get a point,” lamented Fandi after the match. “That was a sloppy goal. From the throw-in, we allowed it (the goal) to happen. We have to learn from this.”
Fandi’s mission template was the same when the match kicked off at 8pm. The 56-year-old kept faith with the same starting XI who defeated Indonesia 1-0 last Friday and for large parts of the game, the Lions’ battling qualities were good enough to stifle the Philippines.
Ikhsan Fandi went close in the 17th minute with a low free kick and there were solid performances from centre-back Irfan Fandi, winger Gabriel Quak and captain Hariss Harun.
The Azkals, ranked 116th in Fifa’s world rankings and 49 rungs above 165th-ranked Singapore, had their chances too. In the 64th minute, forward James Younghusband broke free inside the Lions’ box before hammering a fierce shot that Hassan did well to palm away.
But the killer blow landed with 12 minutes left as the Lions were unable to clear an innocuous throw-in that played Reichelt through to grab the only goal and spark joyous scenes among the partisan 4,327 crowd.
To compound matters for the Lions, Fandi sent on Shahril Ishak as the veteran forward has a knack of unlocking defences. But within six minutes of his 66th-minute introduction, he landed heavily after a fall and had to be stretchered off with a dislocated shoulder. Winger Faris Ramli was also replaced with a suspected hamstring injury.
The Philippines’ coach Sven-Goran Eriksson may have seen headier days as the manager of England and Manchester City but there he was, in a spartan stadium far away from the Wembleys and Etihads he had previously graced.
“In one week (in charge), I can’t do everything myself,” he said.
“The staff did a great job and deserve big applause. With this win, we are not done but it is much more easy to get out of the group.”
And the 70-year-old Swede knows that the Azkals must improve by playing more on the deck than just hoofing the ball in the air, saying: “My expectation is to play a little bit more. There were lots of long balls, we must try to improve.”
With Indonesia winning last night’s game against Timor Leste 3-1, the Lions are currently fourth in Group B on three points, behind Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines on goal difference.
And Fandi knows he needs to plumb the supply line to the forwards as Singapore prepare to face Timor Leste at Kallang next Wednesday to get the goal bonanza needed to leapfrog his rivals.
He said: “We fought until the end but we lacked the penetrating passes to create chances up front. There is no need to change much in the team, maybe a slight change to the formation. But we have to find those penetrating passes.”
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