Juventus test for national team hopefuls
Lions' coach happy with results of training tour, as team build towards Asean title defence
It was arranged as a friendly fixture between a Singapore Selection and Italian giants Juventus, but there will be more than just pride on the line when Bernd Stange leads his team out at the National Stadium on Aug 16.
The German will use the match as part of his preparations for the national team's upcoming battle in the AFF Suzuki Cup, which will be co-hosted here and in Vietnam, with players fighting for spots in the squad that will look to defend the Asean title they won in 2012.
The Lions and the Singapore Under-23 team returned home yesterday after a 16-day training tour of Austria.
The national team drew 2-2 with Brno, lost 3-0 to Torpedo Moscow and fell 2-0 to a Dinamo Moscow side that featured former Chelsea player Yuri Zhirkov.
Speaking to The New Paper at Changi Airport yesterday, Singapore coach Stange said: "In Austria, we (the Lions) played with Brno, Torpedo Moscow, then Dinamo Moscow.
"Next we will play Cambodia on Aug 1 and then Juventus, which will be an additional match that we will use in preparation for the Suzuki Cup."
While the 66-year-old revealed that changes in schedule of the Malaysia Cup fixtures will mean that administrative matters will need to be sorted out as far as the schedule of friendly tests go, he was pleased with the progress that he saw in Austria.
"We had two training sessions a day and seven matches (between the Lions and the U-23s), it pushed all of us to the limit, but we successfully achieved what I expected," he said.
"We have stabilised out style of football and have started to show a face of our own, and the stats show that we are moving in the right direction."
While Stange admitted that the team did lose out physically - in terms of speed, power and strength - to the European sides, he pointed out that it would not be a problem that they face when take on South-east Asian teams.
"Against these European teams we proved that we can play at their level for at least the first half, but we tend to lose out in the second half of games because of physical problems," said the former Belarus coach, who also had positive feedback about the Singapore side from European coaches like Hans Meyer (former Borussia Monchengladbach coach) who watched the team in action.
But Stange is aware that more needs to be done for both the national team and the U-23s.
He reiterated a point he made in an earlier interview with TNP, that a technical task-force needs to be set up to ensure that the juniors get more training time to get them up to the levels needed for next year's South-east Asia Games, which Singapore will host for the first time since 1993.
This after the youngsters fell 6-1 (to Czech side FC Pribram) and 5-0 (to Borussia Dortmund U-23) in their first two fixtures, before beating German amateur outfit TSV Freilassing 5-0.
But Stange's attention right now will be on the seniors, and putting together a Singapore Selection for the clash with reigning Serie A champions Juventus.
The glamour friendly has taken on greater significance, not only because it will be the first football match played at the imposing new 55,000-capacity National Stadium at the $1.33 billion Singapore Sports Hub, but also because it will be another stepping stone for a number of players in their quest to do well in the Suzuki Cup.
Said Stange: "I will look at players for the Suzuki Cup squad, and maybe include a couple of shining stars from the S.League."
A physical test, and a chance to bond
Only one draw was managed by the national team in the three games they played on the recently concluded 16-day training tour to Austria.
The Lions scored two goals, both coming in a 2-2 draw with Czech side Brno.
But veteran defender Baihakki Khaizan told The New Paper that there were several positives coming out of the trip that made him optimistic that the new look national team can defend the AFF Suzuki Cup title when the tournament is co-hosted in Singapore and Vietnam in November.
"This is virtually a brand new team and we know we may not look like favourites, but there are things that happened in Austria that give us a lot of positivity," he told TNP, after arriving home yesterday with the rest of the squad.
The 30-year-old revealed that if only first-half performances were taken into consideration, the Lions "would be a great team."
"We even surprised Stange by daring to play a confident game of short passes against the European opponents, but unfortunately we faded in the second half due to physical issues and the fitness they have at this level," said the LionsXII central defender.
"One key point is that these are big European players, our regional rivals haven't shown that they can push us similarly, at least not in physical terms."
Baihakki revealed that the sports science and medicine team have pencilled in gym sessions for the players to make sure they improve their physical capabilities.
The national under-23 side were also on tour with the seniors and also displayed some positive signs.
Having watched two of Fandi Ahmad's sons - Ikhsan, 15, and Irfan, who turns 17 next month - Baihakki believes there are players with genuine potential.
He paid tribute to the physical strength of Irfan, and also lauded the smooth silky footwork of Ikhsan, saying: "They have different strengths, but from what I've seen, it's just a matter of time before they make it somewhere."
Ikhsan scored the final goal in the U-23s 5-0 win over TSV Freilassing.
Home United forward Fazrul Nawaz believes that both teams benefited in more than just footballing terms.
"My best memory was having everyone - the national team, the U-23s and even the officials breaking fast together," he said.
"We also had Nurhafizah (Abu Sujad, team physio) cooking meals for us as we prepared to fast before dawn. That kind of unity was quite special."