SINGAPORE – Dodgy in defence, meek in midfield, and aimless in attack, the Lions’ World Cup qualifying campaign resumed in disastrous fashion as they lost 4-0 to Palestine on Thursday (June 3) at the King Fahd International Stadium in Saudi Arabia.
The World Cup Group D qualifier was Singapore’s first competitive outing in 18 months and it showed in their sluggish 90-minute display.
After an encouraging start to Tatsuma Yoshida’s coronavirus-disrupted tenure since 2019, in which they had beaten Palestine and Yemen 2-1 in previous qualifiers, the Japanese coach conceded this was the “worst performance” under his watch.
The 46-year-old took responsibility for the loss and said: “The boys were nervous in the first half and I am very disappointed. They can do better. We could not show our full potential. If we did play with our full potential, the result would be changed. It is very disappointing and I am very sorry for the Singapore fans.
“But it’s not on the players. It’s because of my management. It’s on me.”
In the absence of injured striker Ikhsan Fandi and a recognised No. 9 in the squad, the 159th-ranked Lions failed to put together any meaningful attack against world No. 104 Palestine, with debutant Ilhan Fandi cutting a lonely figure up front.
But Singapore truly unravelled in defence in a kamikaze 10-minute spell in the first half to record their heaviest defeat under Yoshida in his 10th match in charge. The result is also their worst competitive loss since a 4-0 defeat to Syria in an Asian Cup qualifier in November 2013.
The Lions were already struggling to keep possession early on before Tamer Seyam scored the opener with a 20th-minute penalty after Madhu Mohana brought down Oday Dabbagh in the box.
More shoddy defending ensued three minutes later when Dabbagh got on the end of a miscued Irfan Fandi clearance to double their lead with a shot that squirmed under Izwan Mahbud, raising questions over his selection following lack of game time in the Thai League 1.
Palestine made it 3-0 after 30 minutes with Seyam’s second penalty after Irfan handled the ball in the box.
Yoshida introduced experienced defender Baihakki Khaizan and nifty forward Faris Ramli for Gabriel Quak and Ilhan respectively for the second half and switched from a back four to a back three. While the Lions’ defensive shape improved, they remained devoid of pace and creativity in attack and finished the match without a shot on target.
The result means that Palestine leapfrog Singapore into third place in Group D on goal difference. Both teams have seven points, with Palestine playing a game more than the Lions. Saudi Arabia lead the group with 11 points, with Uzbekistan two points adrift, while Yemen are bottom with five points.
Yoshida’s men will now need to regroup as they take on Uzbekistan on June 7 and Saudi Arabia four days later to round off the qualifying campaign.
He admitted the Lions will now focus on the fight for third spot in the group, and said: “We are very disappointed as a national team. I believe our possibility of (finishing second) is nearly zero.”
The group winners and the best five runners-up from the eight groups qualify for the Asian Cup and progress to the third round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup. The remaining teams still can qualify for the Asian Cup via various other permutations.
The Lions looked like they already threw in the towel at 3-0 down.
Perhaps this is where the absence of skipper Hariss Harun was most felt. The midfield conductor is usually the most vocal presence for the Lions on and off the pitch. At half-time, the men in blue trudged off the pitch with their heads down, and there was seemingly no one who took it upon themselves to rally the team.
It was only before the start of the second half when substitute Baihakki was seen cajoling the players in a huddle.
Hariss will not be available for the subsequent matches against Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, so new leaders have to come to the fore to lead the side.
Hassan Sunny, who has 85 national caps and Baihakki who has 138 caps may need to be drafted into the starting line-up to add some much needed leadership as the Lions aim to achieve improbable results against superior opponents in the remaining games.