SINGAPORE — Need a positive start to wipe away underwhelming memories of their past three AFF Suzuki Cup campaigns, Singapore found their groove in scintillating fashion in a 3-0 romp over Myanmar at the National Stadium on Sunday (5 December).
It was a dominant performance by the Lions that sent the 7,588-strong fans home happy, albeit against opponents who were a shell of themselves after being hit by injuries, withdrawals and pandemic issues.
Nonetheless, it gave Singapore an ideal start to the Cup, as they bid to advance into the semi-finals for the first time since 2012, when they last won the biennial regional tournament. It also provided a massive shot of confidence among a Lions squad which had endured a six-match winless streak before the competition that included heavy defeats by admittedly stronger opponents.
Coach Tatsuma Yoshida has already set a target of the full nine points against Myanmar, Philippines and Timor-Leste before they face their toughest Group A opponents Thailand in their final group match on 18 December.
Not surprisingly, the Japanese is demanding better performances ahead.
"The three points were the most important for us tonight. I thought we were nervous and tentative for the first 20 minutes, and we were fortunate that the three goals came at the right time," he said after the match.
"We still can make improvements, we still can do more in the next matches. But for now, I'm happy with the win."
Myanmar, on the other hand, were already hit by the withdrawals of key players such as goalkeeper Kyaw Zin Htet and strikers Kyaw Ko Ko and Aung Thu, all of whom declined to join the team as a protest against the military coup in February.
Then upon arriving in Singapore, 10 of the players needed to be retested following initial positive or inconclusive COVID-19 tests, and could not train a day before the match.
Their French coach Antoine Hey lamented, "We lacked the fluency that comes with training together, and Singapore took advantage of our shortcomings. Congratulations to Singapore, but we have to try and make the best of our bad situation."
Newcomer Song Ui-young shines in midfield
Despite the troubles within the Myanmar squad, Yoshida signalled his intention to start the tournament on a the best possible note, as he trotted out his strongest starting line-up possible, with recently-naturalised Song Ui-young slotting into the central midfield with captain Hariss Harun and veteran playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman.
And it was Song who created the first clear-cut opportunity for the Lions, as his defence-splitting pass in the 14th minute released Faris Ramli past the last line of defence. However, the nippy forward could not control the bobbling ball and shot weakly straight at Myanmar goalkeeper Myo Min Latt.
Left-back Shakir Hamzah then had his thumping header saved at point-blank range in the 22nd minute, but as the Lions sustained their pressure on the overworked Myanmar defence, the crowd could sense the opening goal arriving soon.
And it duly came in the 34th minute, and it was veteran centre-back Safuwan Baharudin who rose highest to head home Shahdan's pin-point corner kick. The joyous celebrations that ensued among the Lions showed how relieved they were to quickly get their campaign up and running.
And with their resistance broken, Myanmar crumbled. Barely five minutes later, they were down 0-2 courtesy of a superb counter-attack, sparked again by Song. His quick-thinking pass from a corner clearance sliced through the retreating Myanmar defence, again setting Faris darting away.
This time, Faris picked out Ikhsan Fandi, who fended off a defender before slamming an accurate low drive into the bottom-left corner of the net.
Two goals up, and with the crowd firmly behind them, the Lions began to find their swagger, keeping possession from the demoralised Myanmar players. And just before half-time, they had a free-kick near the right flank, and Shahdan coolly whipped in a beautiful cross for Ikhsan to direct a looping header past the flailing arms of Myo for a 3-0 cushion.
With that commanding advantage, the Lions eased up in the second half. While there were sloppy passages, the home side still managed to test Myo with half chances on several occasions and were largely untroubled by Myanmar's attempts at finding a consolation goal.
Thailand labour to 2-0 win over minnows Timor-Leste
In the opening match of the Cup at the National Stadium earlier on Sunday, tournament favourites Thailand laboured to a modest 2-0 win over minnows Timor-Leste, who trotted an ultra-defensive formation to try and keep the scoreline respectable.
After huffing and puffing to no avail in the first half, the Thais finally made their breakthrough with a 51st-minute opener by substitute Pathompol Charoenrattanapirom. Striker Supachok Sarachart added a deflected second goal for Alexandre Polking's men in the 81st minute.
In between the two matches, the Suzuki Cup was officially opened by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who had also graced the opening for Football Association of Singapore's new headquarters at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
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