Baihakki and Madhu: We complement each other in defence
Tonight, Johor Darul Ta'zim II's Baihakki Khaizan and the LionsXII's Madhu Mohana will be at the heart of the Singapore defence for the vital clash with Afghanistan.
At 31, Baihakki has seen it all, while 24-year-old Madhu is steadily chalking up his international experience. Here, David Lee talks to the duo about their burgeoning partnership, and what makes them tick.
The two of you are on opposite ends of the spectrum - Bai, you have 119 caps, Madhu seven. At this stage of your respective international careers, how do you feel about each national call-up?
Baihakki: Whether it's my first cap or 100th cap, my approach is the same - take every match seriously and give of my best.
If you look at my age, then yes, I am one of the oldest in the team. But I don't feel old and I will play for as long as I still have the same energy levels and it's up to the coach to pick me or not.
Madhu: I missed the cut for last year's Suzuki Cup, which obviously sucked because I felt I was ready, but I just carried on playing with full commitment, just like I always have.
It feels good now to be a regular for club and country, but I know I have to keep my feet on the ground and keep working my socks off to keep my place and contribute.
Over the last 12 years, you have teamed up with numerous defenders in the national set-up and now Madhu is your latest centre-back partner. What's your view of Madhu?
Baihakki: Madhu has the hunger. Even from his Singapore Sports School days, he was one of the top players among his peers. He took his chance and he has the momentum now.
We played together for the LionsXII in 2012, which helped form a good partnership, good communication and understanding.
And how do you feel playing alongside a centurion?
Madhu: It's always good to play with someone who has 100 caps worth of experience. Bai is not someone who will scold younger players. Instead, he likes to teach and offer advice.
I feel comfortable in this partnership. Through the years, he has guided me and taught me about covering and positioning on the pitch.
What is your approach to football?
Baihakki: Each game I play helps add to my experience. Over the years, it's been a boy-to-man journey. I have had the privilege to represent my country, travel the world and play in front of different crowds, and that's a footballer's dream.
Only now I have started to realise that football is really a simple game. In the past, I have done so many unnecessary things on the pitch, where now I understand the modern game can be summarised by just passing and movement, with speed and intelligence thrown in.
Madhu: After finishing National Service, I have had more time to train. I no longer have to miss training and games away from home. With more playing time has come more confidence and composure. It's all been about seizing the opportunity when it comes your way.
Now I realise that this is my career, it is my source of income, so I cannot be reckless. Day-in, day-out, I have to put in hard work and cut out schoolboy errors because I'm not a schoolboy anymore.
If I want to continue making a living playing football, continue representing Singapore and earn 100 caps like Bai, I have to be disciplined and focused.
We have made a decent start to the World Cup/Asian Cup qualifiers. What does this campaign mean to you personally?
Baihakki: I really want to taste Asian Cup action before my international retirement and this could be my last chance.
Getting so close to qualify for the 2011 edition and missing out was definitely a low. Conquering Asean four times has to be a high, but we have to aim higher than that.
This is a different competition, with a different mood, approach and momentum. Sometimes, you just get the feeling that things are falling in place, or not. It's been so far, so good for us in this campaign.
Hopefully, this will be one of those occasions when everything goes perfectly and we make it through. That said, we are nowhere near the finish line yet and we cannot be satisfied with what we have.
Madhu: My first competitive match was also in an Asian Cup qualifier when we beat Syria 2-1 at Jalan Besar Stadium (Oct 15, 2013). I definitely hope we can repeat that in this campaign.
We did well starting this campaign when we faced Cambodia (4-0, June 11) and Japan (0-0, June 16) but missed the opportunity to beat Syria away (0-1, Sept 4).
Now, it's important for us to win our home games, starting against Afghanistan and put ourselves in a good position to dream of qualification.
Unlike Bai, I have not won a Suzuki Cup, but to qualify for the Asian Cup would be a great achievement.