Stange optimistic about beating Syria
Stange says Middle East sides are stronger, but urges Lions to show the gap is closing
SINGAPORE v SYRIA
(Today 7.30pm, Singtel TV Ch 109 - Eleven)
There are 20 places in the Fifa world ladder separating Syria and the lower-ranked Singapore side in 152nd spot, but the numbers coming off the football pitch suggest the difference in standard is not as far apart.
The head-to-head record of the two sides shows two wins to Syria, with one Singapore victory and a draw.
And while Syria edged out Bernd Stange's charges 1-0 in the recent World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier played in Muscat in September, the Lions bungled four clear chances in what was an even contest.
Maybe the chastening 3-0 defeat by Japan last Thursday had something to do with it but, ahead of tonight's fixture at the National Stadium, Stange was not getting carried away by previous results, like the fact the Lions managed to pull off a 2-1 victory over Syria at Jalan Besar two years ago in an Asian Cup qualifier.
"I did not say that they are much better than us... but till now there is a gap to the Middle East teams, a huge gap," said Stange, pointing to recent results in World Cup qualifiers where Middle East teams have put Asean opposition to the sword, including a 10-0 thumping inflicted on Malaysia by the United Arab Emirates.
"They are physically stronger, more dominating. We have to be realistic. We are not on the level of Middle Eastern teams.
"But we will try to close that gap, the game will show how good we are, and how good Syria are."
The former Belarus and Iraq coach admitted that the Muscat clash illustrated that Singapore were getting closer to Syria's level, but added: "Confidence and arrogance are two different things.
"I'm very, very optimistic we can manage such things, but I'm not a coach who is arrogant to say we could win and (tonight) we can manage that."
Singapore are third in the group, three points behind leaders Japan and one adrift of second-placed Syria.
The group winners and four best runners-up from the eight groups will advance to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, as well as the 2019 Asian Cup Finals.
The remaining four second-placed teams and eight third-placed sides will enter the third round of qualifiers for a spot in the continental competition in 2019 in UAE.
While Japan took the Lions to school in a clinical display at the National Stadium, Hariss Harun, who will almost certainly skipper the hosts again tonight, spoke of the upbeat atmosphere in the side, despite the absence of injured first-choice forward, Khairul Amri.
"He is an important part of the team, but I think this is an opportunity for others to step in, step up, and get the job done," said the midfielder, who will turn 25 on Thursday.
"Our confidence is good, the matches (recently against Syria) have been very close, we've won at home before, and we lost away, narrowly.
"I think it's important that we create chances and put them away."
Looking at the bigger picture, Stange is not harbouring hopes of going further in World Cup qualifying, insisting the target is to get to the Asian Cup Finals.
Singapore will be booted out only if they finish fourth and, for that to happen, Afghanistan must pull off a shock away win over Japan on March 24 and follow that up with a home victory over the Lions five days later by a massive margin.
"We have to be realistic about what we can achieve and what we can't achieve," said Stange. "We set our objectives step by step. If you're running upstairs too fast, you will struggle."
The only time Singapore were represented at the continent's top football stage was when they hosted the tournament in 1984, so qualification will be a feather in the cap.
"(It will be) a great achievement for the boys," said Stange.
"We would have achieved what we wanted, even if some performances were painful."
"I’m not a coach who is arrogant to say we could win and (tonight) we can manage that."
- Singapore coach Bernd Stange, greeting his Syria counterpart Fajr Ibrahim
- Cambodia v Japan (Tonight, 8.15pm, Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh)
We have come only to win, says Syrian coach Fajr
Instead of their national team jackets or track suits, the Syria officials strode into the Amara Hotel conference room yesterday in white T-shirts emblazoned with an image of their president, Bashar al-Assad.
In light of the terror attacks in Paris on Saturday morning (Singapore time), it was clear the Syria football team wanted to make a statement at the pre-match press conference ahead of tonight's World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier against Singapore at the National Stadium.
Explaining his choice of apparel, Syria coach Fajr Ibrahim (pictured above) said: "This is our president Bashar al-Assad, whom we are so proud of, because this man fights against all the terrorists of the world, and he fights for you also. He is the best man in the world."
But when asked about his thoughts on the deadly terror attack in Paris, the 51-year-old bizarrely said: "We are not in a politics press conference, this is a sports press conference. If you have anything to ask about the game, I will answer.
"I don't care about France or anything else, I care about my country."
Fajr's session yesterday was short, sharp and to the point, as if he was confident of securing a win tonight.
Maybe it's because Syria have had a superb campaign so far, winning five of their six games and scoring 18 goals, a tally surpassed by only three of the 38 teams participating in the qualifiers.
Despite their domestic woes, Syria have qualified for five Asian Cups and also played at the Under-17 World Cup last month.
If the Eagles win their last three games against Singapore, Cambodia and Japan, respectively, they could even top the group and advance to the next round of the World Cup qualifiers and qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup in UAE.
They would also stand a very good chance to do so as one of the top four runners-up.
"Right now, Syria and I don't like to talk so much, I prefer hard work," said Fajr.
"This match is important to both teams who have their own objectives, but it is more crucial for us and we are here to win and qualify for the next round of the World Cup qualifiers.
"Now is the best time for the Singapore team. I think they have a great coach, football has improved in Singapore very well.
The team are very disciplined and, day by day, they have improved.
"This is the first time I've seen a Singapore team at this level.
"I know last game it was tough and we won, and we lost the last time we were here. But now, we are here to win. We are better than before because we have more experience and good confidence and support."
In 23-year-old midfielder Osama Omari, Syria have a goalscorer who has come alive over the last three matches to score four goals, including a hat-trick in the 5-2 win over Afghanistan last month.
Surveying Singapore's state-of-the-art National Stadium a little later, midfielder Abdelrazaq Al-Hussain, like everyone else in the squad, could have been dreaming of a time he can play an international match at home.
They have not been able to do so since 2010 as stadiums in Syria now serve as military bases and detention centres, reducing the national team to nomads who play in Oman, Iran, Jordan or Turkey.
Said Fajr: "You know, all the world fight us, and we fight all the world in football. Then we need to qualify.
"We are here to make our people happy."