Sundram and Ong both voice caution ahead of crucial clash
SINGAPORE v MALAYSIA
(Tonight, 8pm, Singtel TV Ch 109 - Eleven)
They hesitated before the handshake.
But, a split-second and a knowing glance later, the shoulders of V Sundramoorthy and Ong Kim Swee loosened as both men got into conversation.
It was merely small talk as they waited to pose for photographs at the pre-match press conference for tonight's Causeway Challenge, but it was clear that there was some sort of camaraderie between the national coaches of Singapore and Malaysia.
Tonight's match at the Singapore Sports Hub's National Stadium is a warm-up fixture for the AFF Suzuki Cup, which starts on Nov 19.
Clearly, a positive performance - and result - is needed on either side of the Causeway.
Neither man would say it, but a loss tonight would be disastrous.
Last month, Malaysia lost 3-0 to an Indonesia side just returning to the international fold after a Fifa ban.
And the Tigers are still looking to instil some sense of normalcy after reeling from a club-versus-country row with Malaysian Super League (MSL) side Johor Darul Ta'zim that has seen the team lose four from their first 11 – including skipper Safiq Rahim – to early retirement.
But Sundram refused to accept the notion of wounded Tigers, and instead called for caution.
"It will be a hard game, Malaysia are coming here to also prepare for the Suzuki Cup, same as us. (Malaysia's) retirements can be good and can also be not good for them," he said.
"The senior players may have retired but it gives the younger players a chance to prove themselves on a big stage.
PACE V PANACHE
"Ong has used a lot of young players, and they are speedy players. We'll start at 11 versus 11 and it will be a level playing field."
Singapore have not had the best of times under Sundram either, winning just once and losing thrice since the former Tampines Rovers coach took charge.
This included a 2-1 defeat by a 10-man Cambodia side - the first time Singapore fell to the Cambodians in 44 years.
But Ong adopted a similar cautious approach.
"I know Sundram very well when he was with the LionsXII. In certain games, he adopted tactical changes, and he's done a very good job with the LionsXII, and even with Tampines," said Ong.
Sundram led the now-defunct LionsXII to the MSL title in 2013, his second year in charge of the team.
He spent a year with Malaysian second-tier side Negeri Sembilan before returning to the S.League with Tampines, leading them to second spot last year and into the AFC Cup quarter-finals, before taking the reins of the national team.
"But (tonight) is a different kind of game. Singapore are at home, and I expect them to press us early," added Ong.
"Hopefully, we benefit from this game and, definitely, we are looking for a good result, but our objective is to prepare for the Suzuki Cup."
Neither Sundram nor Ong would say it, but a draw on the back of a decent performance would suit both sides looking to pull their teams out of a rut, and relieve some pressure ahead of what is set to be a challenging Suzuki Cup campaign for both teams.
The Lions are in Group A, along with defending champions Thailand, Indonesia and co-hosts, the Philippines; while the Tigers are in Group B with Vietnam, Myanmar and the winners of the qualifying round.
Both Sundram and Ong expect a tough game tonight, but it was perhaps in the words they left unsaid that will determine just how the match unfolds.
I feel the last game against Malaysia was a learning experience for us… We were a bit naive…I feel we are better prepared now with a couple of senior heads in the team and we hope for a positive result.
— Hariss Harun, referring to Singapore’s 3-1 defeat by Malaysia the last time both sides met — in the 2014 Suzuki Cup at the National Stadium