Singapore Football: Asian Cup Qualifier vs Oman (15/08/13)

[Update: The final score was Singapore 0-2 Oman]

The second game of Group A is upon us, ASEAN minnows Singapore taking on Oman. With Singapore sitting on zit points after losing 4-0 away to Jordan in their first game, they really need to get a result against an Omani side that sit atop the group on three points alongside Jordan. In all fairness, Singapore were never going to fare well against Jordan in freezing 10 degree C temperatures, especially since they are much more used to the humid Singaporean weather. This led to the likes of national team regulars Dan Bennett and Shahdan Sulaiman being left out of the squad. Further, having never won against Oman in the two sides’ last 6 match-ups, things don’t look too well for their new German coach Bernd Stange in his first competitive fixture with Singapore.

How about the positives first? Stange managed to start his reign as Raddy Avramovic’s successor with two wins, 2-0 over Myanmar and 5-2 over Laos. Sure, with no disrespect, the two teams are considered minnows in ASEAN football, let alone at the Asian level. The core of the Singapore team were part of the LionsXII side that recently lifted the Malaysian League title. Stange, himself, is no stranger to taking lesser sides to lofty heights, having managed Belarus and Iraq previously.

Fresh Approach for Singapore

Stange’s new methods for Singapore football has been greeted positively by everyone involved. He quickly identified one key component to lift Singapore’s footballing standard: the fitness of the local players, and subsequently focused heavily on it, flying in top of the line weight-measuring and fitness equipment. The problem he really referred to was actually the fact that our local players could not keep up with their Asian counterparts like Japan or Korea, instead being satisfied with their ASEAN level standard of fitness.

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how long will the reign of bernd stange last?

With his emphasis on individual fitness programs and strict diet regimes, Stange does have some tactical ideas for this country as well. He has stated he wants this side playing quick passing and movement football – which of course, can only be achieved with superior fitness.

Having a Singaporean presence in his coaching staff has been one of his priorities, first bringing ex-defender Aide Iskandar as assistant coach while establishing a good relationship with current LionsXII and U-21s boss V. Sundramoorthy. He has also sought the help of recently-retired forward Alexander Duric, as well as axed national team regulars Bennett and Mustafic Fahrudin to add to his back-room staff. Along with that, he has also flown in his long-time lieutenant Harald Irmscher to help implement his footballing ideals.

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favourite aide iskandar task will be helping stange settle into the local scene

His focus on Singapore’s youth is very comforting as well. Other than making the brave decision of dropping experienced duo Bennett and Mustafic, he has not been afraid to call up, and use, 17 year old Adam Swandi, currently at French Ligue 2 side FC Metz, as well as breakout player of LionsXII’s title winning season, forward Shafiq Ghani. Sahil Suhaimi and Anumanthan also got surprised call-ups, but is probably there just for the experience.

FF’s Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Izwan Mahbud (GK); Faritz Hameed, Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin (all LionsXII), Shaiful Esah (Tampines Rovers); Hariss Harun, Isa Halim (both LionsXII); Qiu Li (Balestier Khalsa), Shahril Ishak (C – LionsXII), Khairul Amri (Tampines Rovers); Indra Sahdan (Home United).

Even though he opted for more youth in the first two friendly games, Stange will most probably go for more experience for his competitive debut game, especially if Qiu Li and Indra get the expected nods in the offensive positions. As the veteran duo aren’t blessed with much pace or mobility compared to maybe winger Gabriel Quak or Ghani, Stange’s side will have to be more measured with their passing. The question here: Is Singapore already at a certain standard of passing Stange expects them to be at to play such football?

Potential Game Deciders

One area the German must focus on is definitely Singapore’s set-pieces. As the core was part of the triumphant LionsXII team, he must look at why Sundramoorthy’s side was so successful this season.

Set-pieces. Central defenders Baihakki and Safuwan are lethal in the air and the opposition box. Add on the set-piece prowess and the curl Tampines left-back Esah has in his deliveries, this could be Singapore’s key route to goal. I haven’t even mentioned skipper Shahril Ishak’s abilities from corners and free-kicks yet. Also, the pace and direct play of once-wonder boy Khairul Amri will be useful for Stange down the flanks.

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safuwan, and ghani, contributed key goals in the LionsXII’s title-winning campaign

The other key area that could decide the game is in central midfield, where vice-captain Hariss and Isa are deployed in to shield the back-four. Their performance in the middle will determine how much freedom the front 4 will have in the attacking areas of Singapore’s play. Stange will need to set up his side to ensure they don’t concede in the first 15-20 minutes, while trying to find that bonus of a goal inside the first 30 minutes to really get the home fans rocking and getting behind their side. Home advantage really is important to Singapore’s hope of pulling off any sort of upset.

Skipper Shahril Ishak’s key role cannot be anymore highlighted really. Besides doing his usual job of creating chances and dictating play, he will have to occasionally drop back to help his midfield, either linking play up, or shielding the ball to draw fouls whenever his defence needs a relief from the inevitable Omani pressure.

At the very least, Singapore has one thing going for them. The back-four, other than Esah, will be very familiar with their goalkeeper, as the majority played together in the LionsXII. This familiarity cannot be understated, as the chemistry and bonds between the defenders will be key in keeping the Omani attack out. They will have to help right-back Faritz Hameed out though, as he is still finding his feet at international level (but has so much potential he could be the national team’s first choice right-back for the best part of the next decade).

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singapore’s long-term right-back.

Any Tricks Up His Sleeves?

What tactical surprises or wildcards can Stange pull out from his sleeves? Firstly, I would not be surprised to see Shahril Ishak start up top, maybe as a false number 9, with Indra behind him. This will allow the skipper to drop deep more often, drawing Oman’s centre-backs out of their defensive line; hence leave space in behind for the pace of Amri, Quak and Ghani, or for the intelligent runs of Qiu Li and Indra, to get a clearer route to the byline for more dangerous whipped or drilled crosses, or even shots on goal. This will give the Oman defence more problems than say an out-and-out striker in front of Shahril Ishak, in terms of marking.

Further, substitutes could prove key, in this tie and in Stange’s reign in general. Ghani and Quak would definitely get their chance off the bench, or maybe even start if Stange opts for more youthful exuberance and their obvious pace. Quak’s inconsistency, though, would work against him getting what would be a surprise start. The experienced head of Noh Rahman might be required to see out an unlikely draw or improbably victory, or as a fresh replacement for either starting centre-mid. The biggest surprise or wildcard, though, would be Swandi, but he would really see action only if Singapore is already on the end of a huge defeat or if Stange has no more ideas and just throws him on in search of a last-minute equalizer. He will probably see 10 minutes, max.

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the new fandi ahmad? much of singapore fans’ hopes lie on his shoulders

Singapore’s new coach may not get the upset he would have liked on his competitive debut, but if he can continue to work his ideas and fitness elements into the team, he might have a long career with the Lions, and hopefully get them into the Asian Cup sooner rather than later, along with more AFF Cup triumphs.

Maybe a World Cup debut for the tiny ASEAN nation in 2022 beckons? Even if he does not last that long in the job, that could be Bernd Stange’s lasting legacy for this football-crazy country.

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