Gritty display sees Singapore hold Vietnam to stay unbeaten in AFF Cup 2022
The Lions frustrated their higher-ranked and much more fancied visitors to claim an all-important point.
The Singapore men’s national football team’s bid to qualify for the knockout stages in the second consecutive Asean Football Federation (AFF) Mitsubishi Electric Cup was given a huge boost on Friday night (Dec 30).
Putting on a display of real grit and resilience and helped by a slice of luck, the Lions kept a much-fancied Vietnam at bay to earn a goalless draw and a valuable point.
The result moves the Lions into second spot in Group B, behind Vietnam on goal difference. More crucially, they now have a point more than rivals Malaysia – one that means they can head into next week’s causeway derby needing to avoid only a defeat to make it through from the group stages.
While Vietnam made changes to almost the entire team that defeated Malaysia 3-0 the last time out, they were still expected to win. Afterall, the Vietnamese are the only team in the AFF Cup ranked in the top 100 – at 96th- while Singapore are ranked 160th.
It was very much a David vs Goliath battle and it showed from the very start. But the Lions worked, probably the hardest they have done so far in the tournament, to repel everything that came their way and preserve their unbeaten record thus far.
Led by captain Hariss Harun, the veterans in the team rose to the occasion. So did the young ones, with 22-year-old Ryhan Stewart keeping his discipline at right-back on his first competitive start for the country, while 23-year-old Shah Shahiran ran his socks off in the middle of the park.
It was a dogged defensive display, epitomised by the man-of-the-match display from 25-year-old Irfan Fandi, whose biggest contribution was probably the amazing last-ditch block late on to deny Vietnam.
But Singapore will be sweating over the fitness of Irfan’s younger brother, Ilhan. The forward, who lashed Christopher van Huizen’s pass over the bar in the 26th minute, hurt his knee towards the end of the first half and had to be replaced.
Should Ilhan miss the match against Malaysia, then Singapore will have to do without two of their brightest talents up front, with sibling Ikhsan already ruled out after suffering a serious knee injury before the tournament.
In Lion City Sailors’ pair of Shawal Anuar and Song Uiyoung, coach Takayuki Nishigaya still have reasons for optimism. The duo added more bite in the attacking third for Singapore after coming on at half-time, showing a willingness to press from the front constantly that kept Vietnam defenders on their toes.
Still, the Lions never carved out any real opportunity.
Yet as the game wane on, it looked like it was never going to be Vietnam’s day.
Despite the introduction of star players like midfield playmaker Nguyen Quang Hai – who plays in the French second-division with Pau FC – and prolific forward Nguyen Tien Linh – who scored in their 2-1 friendly win over German side Borussia Dortmund – Vietnam couldn’t unlock the sturdy Singapore defence. When they broke past the last line of Singapore’s defence, Hassan Sunny stood strong in goal once again.
On the one occasion Hassan was beaten, the woodwork came to the rescue, as Nguyen Hoang Duc’s long-range effort smacked against the post in the 84th minute.
The result gives the Lions some quiet optimism ahead of the new year as they open 2023 with an all-important trip across the Causeway to face Malaysia at Bukit Jalil Stadium.
There have been questions about their uninspiring performance in the tournament so far. But their defence has held strong so far, and a third consecutive clean sheet will see them through.