Izwan confident of another good Lions show against Syria
Goalkeeper a big reason Lions go into Syria game with confidence
It has been 255 minutes since Singapore goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud conceded a goal on international duty.
Neither Japan star attackers, some of whom play in top European leagues, nor the many naturalised talents of Qatar could find a way past him.
Little wonder the 25-year-old LionsXII skipper feels confident of another solid showing in the World Cup Group E qualifier against Syria in Muscat, Oman, on Friday (Singapore time).
"I feel like I'm in the best form of my career, but I always believe that together with my teammates, I can still do better," said Izwan, before flying from Doha to Muscat yesterday.
"There is no particular reason or secret behind my form, only lots of hard work and preparation.
"I was on the bench when we played Syria two years ago, but I know they are tough and physical, so we have to be smart about how we defend against them to avoid being overpowered."
Improbably, the Lions lead the group after two fine results away from home - a 4-0 win over Cambodia followed by a 0-0 against Japan - and even a draw against Syria will set them up nicely for four successive home games after that.
The eight group winners and four best runners-up of the second round of the 2018 World Cup Asian qualifiers will advance to the third round, and also qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup Finals, a feat Singapore have never managed except when they hosted the tournament in 1984.
Even as they chase a milestone, Bernd Stange's men have already created a little slice of football history.
The first two results meant the Lions kept back-to-back clean sheets for the first time in the group stages of World Cup qualifiers.
Key to the Lions' strong defensive showing has been the superb form of Izwan, who also kept a clean sheet when he played the first half of last Friday's 4-0 friendly defeat by Qatar - he was replaced by Hassan Sunny at half-time - making five top saves.
If they are to get a third positive result on the road, the Lions will need Izwan to be unbeatable once more.
While Stange emphasised the importance of a solid all-round display from all 11 players, he reserved special praise for his goalkeeper, and said: "We are very happy with Izwan's performance in Cambodia, Japan and especially the first half against Qatar... he didn't make one mistake."
The World Cup qualifiers have always seemed to bring the best out of Izwan.
In 2011, with senior goalkeepers Lionel Lewis and Hassan injured, Izwan earned his second and third caps in a fiercely contested two-legged Causeway Derby, putting on a fine performance as Singapore beat Malaysia 6-4 on aggregate to advance to the third round.
Since then, he has gone on to help the LionsXII win the Malaysian Super League in 2013, before lifting the Malaysian FA Cup this year as captain.
Izwan believes being given the LionsXII armband has inspired him.
"Being LionsXII captain has made me become a more responsible player on and off the pitch," he said.
"I feel it has made me a better player and I feel the need to always have to bring my 'A' game every time I stand in goal. And that is what I hope to do against Syria."
Stange's strategy against Syria: Shut down their wingers
Singapore national coach Bernd Stange believes that the key to neutralising Syria in Friday's World Cup qualifier will be shutting down their wingers.
This likely means extra drills for Nazrul Ahmad Nazari and Fazrul Nawaz on the right flank, and Shaiful Esah and Hafiz Abu Sujad down the left, to keep things tight.
With a sturdy midfield core of Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin and Izzdin Shafiq, the Lions believe they can cope if the talented Syrian attackers are forced infield.
After analysing the Lions' previous two encounters with Syria in 2013 - a 2-1 home win and a 4-0 away defeat - as well as the Syrians' thumping 6-0 win over Afghanistan in June, Stange said: "We have to close them down on the wings.
"It is very, very important for us because it is also a weakness of our national team as fullbacks are always trying to overlap in the modern international game.
"We have to improve our defending over the wings because this story continued against Qatar in the second half, when we got more and more tired and conceded four goals."
In the friendly in Doha last Friday, the Lions entered the half-time break unscathed, but collapsed in the second period and lost 4-0.
The Qataris broke the deadlock when left back Abdulkarim Hassan's cross was fired in by right back Musa Ali.
The next goal came from the right as Hassan Al Haidous' driven cross was headed in off the bar by Mohd Muntari.
The third goal was a result of pressure from the right wing, as Shakir Hamzah could not cope with the pace and power of the Qataris.
It felt like deja vu, as Syria's first three goals in the 4-0 win over Singapore two years ago were also engineered from the flanks.
Even though they have the 1.90m Baihakki Khaizan and 1.83m Madhu Mohana in the heart of defence, most of the Lions are dwarfed by Middle Eastern opponents.
But, after holding off Cambodia and Japan in their first two qualifiers, Stange is confident the Lions can pull off another positive result even in withering heat.
"It will be a physical battle against Syria under difficult circumstances here in Oman," he said.
"It's extremely hot but I think after our performances in Cambodia and Japan and especially the first half against Japan, we should be confident to achieve what we want.
"If you play a team that seem to be a little bit stronger, you have to defend. That's the base of our game but, if we want to take something, we have to set some counter-attacks against Syria, because our coaching staff have found weaknesses in their defence."