The dust has settled and the first three points are secured after Singapore beat Syria 2-1 in their Group match at Jalan Besar Stadium last night, aimed at qualifying for the Asian Cup Finals to be held in Australia in early 2015.
It was a win that was richly deserved by the players who fought for every ball and clearly were the team that wanted the win more than their opponents.
The goals scored by Khairul Amri and Gabriel Quak were superb and exhilarating for the fans and for the team itself, but much of the credit should go to the defensive discipline of players like Hariss Harun in center midfield and Safuwan Baharudin at the back.
Some of Safuwan’s tackles were top-drawer, timed exquisitely, bringing warm spontaneous applause from the rank and file.
Everyone pulled their weight and looked like winners, with goalkeeper, Hassan Sunny, reprising his scintillating showing in the Sultan of Selangor’s Cup with some super saves.
His expertise in snuffing out what looked a certain goal by diving at the feet of the Syrian striker, Ahmad Aldouni, in the first half was just part of his achievement. Save after save, when needed, were produced to keep his team in the game.
In one instance a shot looked headed for the right hand corner of the goal and Hassan threw himself to his left to make what appeared a brilliant save, only for those watching to see from later replays that the shot had shaved the post before going out.
But had the ball been a foot or so closer to the goal then Hassan would have certainly saved it, so it was the action of an inspired custodian.
The whole team deserved praise, however, especially considering its relative youth.
With several senior players sitting on the bench, despite coach Bernd Stange’s assertion that he would need more older players for the Syria match, the youngsters were given every chance to show that they were up to the task.
And they did so in style.
It was no real surprise when Adam Swandi made way for Shahdan Sulaiman at the hour mark, as the 17 year old was feeling the effects of being thrown in at the deep end for the second time in five days, having played a similar amount of time in the 1-0 win over Laos.
He’s going to continue to mature, but Shahdan brought a new assuredness to the midfield in attack and was played as far forward as he ever has been and to telling effect.
It was his combativeness that led to Hafiz Abu Sujad being released down the left for the cross that brought Khairul Amri the first goal of the game.
It was no coincidence that Shahdan had come on only a minute earlier.
But Stange, who had already brought on Shaiful Esah and in the process pushed Hafiz further forward where the left-sided player does seem to be at his best, held off bringing on any more senior players.
As the minutes ticked by and most of us expected him to send on Isa Halim to put more of a stranglehold on the middle of the park, the German coach obviously felt that Hariss and Zulfahmi Arifin were doing a good enough job without further reinforcements.
In sending on Gabriel Quak, the ultimate impact player, he showed his shrewdness.
The youngster, who has not had a lot of exposure, even during his Young Lions’ days when often unavailable, due to national service or a long-forgotten long-term suspension, came up trumps.
He was the ace up the coach’s sleeve and nobody saw it coming, certainly not the Syrians who might have studied tapes for hours, yet missed the impact of the 22 year old, who only came on for the last minutes against Laos five days earlier.
True, he had already scored once for the national team in another recent friendly, but the way he took his goal showed immense self-belief and confidence.
After receiving the ball out on the right from Hariss from deep he had a defender closing him down fast.
Rather than trying to go around the defender and take an extra touch or two to improve the angle for a shot, he struck almost instantly, microseconds before the defender could put in a lunging tackle.
The ball fairly sped into the goal to wild cheers.
The impact had certainly been immediate and just how long Gabriel will carry the tag of ‘super sub’ now remains to be seen.
As reported widely Stange was proud of his players, as well he might be.
He had the media in the palm of his hand after repeatedly telling them it was not ‘his way’ but ‘the only way’ referring to his quest for a high-tempo passing game ever since he came to the position.
“This was not a good win,” he began.
“This was a VERY good win!
He made that statement for dramatic effect as he has done with so many of his off-the-cuff remarks before.
The win certainly bought him some time, with three more Asian Cup qualifiers to go.
But Stange insisted, even after this win – perhaps with a semblance of gamesmanship – that his focus was fully on the SEA Games in Myanmar at the end of the year and that testing his Under-23 players at the highest level was his main objective.
With Baihakki Khaizan and Hariss Harun suspended for the return game against Syria in Teheran in a month’s time and Safuwan Baharudin getting married at the same time as that important qualifying match, it’s no wonder he is dismissing Singapore’s chances of getting a result against Syria a second time.
Also, as he pointed out, Madhu Mohana and Zulfahmi Arifin will be continuing their national service and are unlikely to be available either.
“The young players gave me everything, but we can’t hope to qualify when we don’t have a second set of players to call upon, when we get injuries and suspensions,” he reasoned.
“My two NS boys come home at 3am from national service and then have to train with the rest of the team and it’s very difficult for them, so I can’t ask for any more.
“Everyone did well tonight, but I can’t begin to describe the amount of work done by my captain, Shahril (Ishak) who ran and ran for the team, not for himself.
“Above all, the players gave it their all for their country and for the shirt and that’s what we may have been missing in some of the earlier matches. I could ask no more of them than this.
“Yes I did put a couple of older players on later to help us achieve this result, but the young ones can take pride in their efforts as much as any of them.