Stange optimistic about Lions' hitmen
A year ago, national coach Bernd Stange constantly lamented the lack of a proven goalscorer in Singapore.
"We have a problem. There are no strikers on this island," he once told The New Paper before an Asian Cup qualifier last year.
Now, after the recent rise of Courts Young Lions striker Sahil Suhaimi, the form of Home United's Fazrul Nawaz in the S.League, and the encouraging performances of Khairul Nizam in the Malaysia Cup over the past two weeks, the German coach said he has reason to be optimistic.
"The situation has changed. We can be more optimistic about our local boys now," said the 66-year-old.
"Young Sahil is fast coming up, Nizam has shown recently that he has the moves, Fazrul is in good form, and we must not forget (Khairul) Amri.
"But don't forget where Sahil and Nizam were a year ago."
In preparation for November's Suzuki Cup and one eye on the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, later this month, Stange is set to test Sahil, 22, and Fazrul, 29, during the Lions' upcoming friendly matches against Papua New Guinea (Saturday) and Hong Kong (Tuesday).
Both matches will be played at the Hougang Stadium.
The main striker's role is expected to go to Sahil, who has notched eight goals in the S.League this season.
The skilful striker is expected to lead the line in Incheon, as well as for the Under-23s at the 2015 South-east Asia Games, which Singapore will host.
Plagued by fitness issues at the start of the season, when he took six attempts before passing the mandatory 2.4km fitness test, Sahil has improved well over the past eight months, said Stange.
But the German coach cautioned that there is room for improvement for the youngster.
"We know that he is a good goalscorer, but he lacks in other areas," he said.
"I recently gave him a book by (Borussia Dortmund coach) Juergen Klopp on how to choose strikers.
"There are two main criteria. The first was, of course, the player's (knack for) goals. The second was about how the player works off the ball; how he runs and disturbs the defence.
"Sahil has to learn that - it is 50 per cent of his job."
Stange's biggest concern over Nizam is the player's fitness and injury proneness.
A catalogue of injuries to the LionsXII hitman's left knee has seen him miss about 18 months of football in the last two years.
Stange has decided to include Nizam in his Asian Games squad to have fitness coach Sasha Bozenko monitor his progress.
Should Sahil fail to find the net during the upcoming friendlies, the scoring onus will fall on Fazrul, who was picked for the Singapore Selection against Juventus last month, after a year of international wilderness.
The Home United striker is the leading local goal-getter in the S.League with 10 strikes, and is eyeing a starting role in the Suzuki Cup.
"I just want to keep going. Playing in the Suzuki Cup is very important to me because I desperately want to play at the new National Stadium," Fazrul said.
"We don't know who will start up front the next two games (but) I'm just glad to be back for the Lions, and happy that my efforts in the S.League have been noticed."
PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN
The Young Lions' Asian Games hopes have been dealt a double blow as first-choice fullbacks Shakir Hamzah, 21, and Madhu Mohana, 23, are ruled out after tearing their hamstrings in the Malaysia Cup.
Left back Shakir (above, right) suffered a Grade 2 tear in his left hamstring during the 2-2 home draw against Johor Darul Ta'zim II on Aug 26, which forced his exit in the 67th minute.
Right back Madhu (left) had a similar injury in his right hamstring in Tuesday's 3-1 defeat away at Felda United while chasing Zah Rahan Krangar and was replaced in the 26th minute.
Both players will be out for four to eight weeks, meaning they could miss the Singapore Under-23s' Group C matches against Tajikistan (Sept 14), Oman (Sept 17) and Palestine (Sept 21) in Incheon, South Korea.
National coach Bernd Stange confirmed Madhu's omission from the team, but said that he was holding on to the slight hope that Shakir could recover in time.
Tournament rules indicate that squad changes can be made up to 24 hours before the opening fixture.
The German coach revealed that the squad have enough defensive cover, and will select LionsXII striker Khairul Nizam, 23, to replace Madhu.
Said Stange: "There are players in the team who are very able to cover at fullback.
"We have (Young Lions midfielder) Amirul Adli who is only 18, but was very good against Home United in the S.League (last week).
"We also have Al-Qaasimy (Rahman). Against Juventus, he showed he was not afraid to kick Patrice Evra out of the game."
While Shakir was part of the team that went to the Guangzhou Asiad four years ago when they held 2006 champions Qatar to a goalless draw before losing to Kuwait and India, Madhu was looking forward to his first Asian Games outing.
The year 2010, and especially that September, had been a terrible low for Madhu as he was part of the infamous Young Lions-Beijing Guoan "footbrawl".
Then a promising 19-year-old, he was among six Singaporean players, including Nizam, Fairoz Hassan, Gabriel Quak, Irwan Shah and Safuwan Baharudin, who copped fines and suspensions or, in Madhu's case, both, as he was fined $1,000 and banned from all football-related activities for four months.
As such, he missed the Asian Games that took place in November that year.
However, since then Madhu has rebuilt his football career.
He has caught the eye as a reliable, no-nonsense right back with good aerial ability and a useful long throw during the LionsXII's Malaysian Super League-winning season last year.
He told The New Paper: "I'm devastated to miss out on the Asian Games again. I was really looking forward to helping the team try and get a good result against our opponents.
"Now I can only hope to recover fully as soon as possible to fight for a place in the Suzuki Cup squad."
Stange also confirmed that the three over-aged players in his squad - Warriors goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, LionsXII's Baihakki Khaizan and Johor Darul Ta'zim's Hariss Harun - have been cleared by their respective clubs for the Asian Games.
"I have spoken with (Warriors coach) Alex Weaver and we have shifted their league fixtures. All three players are cleared to play."
This will be Singapore's seventh outing in the Asian Games football tournament since their debut in Manila 1954.
Their best finish was fourth in Bangkok 1966, while their last win came against Pakistan (6-1) in Beijing in 1990.
- DAVID LEE