Lions' midfield misses Hariss and Safuwan
Absence of Hariss and Safuwan underlines their importance to Lions
(Khairul Amri 72)
Only a magician can effectively replace Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin.
That was the quote-worthy line given by national coach Bernd Stange, who pointed to the midfield duo's suspensions as the main reason for his side's below-par performance in their fortuitous 1-0 win over Afghanistan last night.
"I kept everything low profile in the last few days," said the German.
"All your questions regarding Safuwan and Hariss, I said it's not important. But today, you saw the hole in midfield.
"And it's very difficult for a national team coach to cover that.
"I am not (famous magician) David Copperfield, makes this (snaps fingers) and we have two new Safuwan and Hariss."
Talk about who would replace the two key players dominated the build-up of last night's World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier at the National Stadium.
Hariss, capped 56 times, has been key in Johor Darul Ta'zim's Malaysian Super League-winning campaign and their run to the AFC Cup quarter-final this season.
The LionsXII's Safuwan, a defender-turned-midfielder with 51 caps, became the first Singaporean to play professionally in Australia after a three-month stint with A-League side Melbourne City in February.
In the end, Stange opted for 24-year-old Zulfahmi Arifin and 31-year-old captain Shahril Ishak to patch his side's midfield last night.
Shahril, who made a record 125th appearance for the Lions last night - according to FAS - was tasked with linking midfield and attack by supporting lone striker Khairul Amri, but was hauled off at half-time for winger Faris Ramli, 23.
Hafiz Abu Sujad, who started the match on the left wing, moved into the centre after the break, but was taken off with 11 minutes to go because of injury.
Zulfahmi lasted the entire 90 minutes alongside Izzdin Shafiq, who in recent matches has established himself as a first-choice for Stange.
Hariss praised the players who stepped in for getting the job done.
"It's not an easy game for the boys, but they did well," he said.
"In terms of performance, it wasn't our best, but the most important thing is we got the result, and we can move on to Tuesday's game."
Zulfahmi admitted that he was not at his best, owing to limited minutes at club level recently and a lack of confidence, but felt he coped well.
"It's tough to come in for Hariss and Safuwan, especially in a game against a Middle East team, who naturally, are physical and strong," he said.
"Plus, I haven't played regularly recently, so to be thrown into the deep end, I have to thank the coaches Bernd, Fandi and Sundram for having faith in me.
"I had a slow start, but I think I grew more confident in the second half and did okay. I didn't lose the ball many times and focused on the defensive side of things.
"And Sundram told me after the game I did okay, so that was nice to hear."
Stange said his engine room missed the dynamism of Hariss and Safuwan, and struggled to cope with the pace of Afghanistan's midfielders.
He said: "We tried to solve (the absence of the two players) with Shahril behind Amri, with Izzdin and Zulfahmi, and it was very, very difficult for them to cover fast players.
"It was the best option I found in this moment, it didn't work well, but we achieved what we wanted.
"I don't see other players now who can make the next step to cover both players.
"These are the best players we have, that's why Hariss is a professional overseas with the champions of Malaysia and Safuwan is one of the best players in South-east Asia.
"How can you substitute those players in three games, three training sessions (before the match)?
"We should praise the players (who came in) and not put them down."
Afghanistan confident of beating the Lions in return leg
Afghanistan coach Slaven Skeledzic
There were some suppressed chuckles on several faces at the pre-match press on Wednesday.
Afghanistan coach Slaven Skeledzic had likened his charges' playing style to that of Spanish pass-masters Barcelona.
It sounded like a wild claim, even though the 43-year-old did qualify his statement by saying that Afghanistan were not at that level.
Skeledzic certainly proved he wasn't joking as his side schooled the Lions in the pass-and-move game in last night's World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier at the National Stadium.
Singapore escaped a slick bombardment of their goal to win 1-0, as the Afghans returned home empty-handed for their efforts.
"I don't know what to say, I am angry and disappointed - the wrong team won today," said Skeledzic after the match.
"We said we wanted to play like Barcelona, and now the whole world can see that we are serious about the way we want to play our football.
"We had more chances, more shots on goal, and enough clear chances to win the game maybe by five or six goals."
Skeledzic was not exaggerating.
CHASING GAME: Afghanistan forward Khaibar Amani (No. 9) trying to fend off Singapore's Baihakki Khaizan. -TNP PHOTO: AFP
Forward Khaibar Amani was the villain for his team, missing three gilt-edged chances, with two coming at the end of the first half.
The first was an open header from just outside the six-yard box in the 44th minute, that he put wide.
Three minutes later, he slid in at the far post of a gaping Singapore goal, only to see the ball bobble wide.
Sprawled on the turf, Amani aimed a frustrated kick at the goalpost, and he missed even that static target.
That was when it became apparent that it was not going to be Afghanistan's night.
"I don't know why we couldn't score, we played the right tactics, we had the right players on the pitch, and we had more possession, more shots, and we really should have won by five goals," said Afghanistan skipper Djelaludin Sharitya.
"(Amani) played a great game, actually. He was involved in the game but, of course, he needs to score, that's his job."
Sharitya backs Amani to bounce back from this setback when they meet Syria next week.
"I spoke to him in the dressing room after the game.
"He was disappointed, of course. In five days, we play against Syria. It will be a tough game and, God willing, he will play and score," said Sharitya.
"We must keep our heads up and keep going."
The result sees Afghanistan sit in fourth spot in the five-team group that also features Cambodia, the opponents Singapore next face on Tuesday.
Skeledzic was as optimistic as his captain.
"We played well, and lost 1-0 and now we will go to Syria and it will be a big fight there," he said.
"But we are going the right way. In the future, if we play like this, we will win these games clearly."
Singapore will face Skeledzic's charges in the return fixture on March 29 next year in Iran, a neutral venue due to the conflict in Afghanistan.
When asked if he thought his team will beat Singapore then, Skeledzic put on a polite smile and said simply: "100 per cent."
"I don’t know why we couldn’t score, we played the right tactics, we had the right players on the pitch, and we had more possession, more shots, and we really should have won by five goals."
— Afghanistan captain Djelaludin Sharitya
Etheridge stars as Azkals hold North Korea
NORTH KOREA 0
South-east Asian side Philippines pulled off a surprise yesterday, when they held hosts and Group H leaders North Korea to a 0-0 draw in Pyongyang.
Playing in front of a 50,000 crowd at the Kim Il Sung Stadium, the North Koreans bombarded the Azkals' goal, but could not find a way past custodian Neil Etheridge.
The Azkals even had a chance to score before half-time, but Daisuke Sato failed to convert.
Backed by the boisterous home crowd, North Korea came out of the break firing on all cylinders, but were stopped by Etheridge.
The former Chelsea trainee, who plays for third-tier English side Walsall, made two vital saves late in the game to help the Azkals force a draw, which was a great improvement from their 5-1 thrashing by Uzbekistan in the previous round. - Wire Services.