Stange: We'll be defending against Japan
Stange admits even a draw will be miraculous, but wants his men to play without fear
JAPAN v SINGAPORE
(Tonight, 6.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 202)
It is the proverbial David v Goliath clash and Singapore coach Bernd Stange has no quarrel with such an assessment, ahead of his Lions' clash with Japan in a World Cup qualifying Group E match tonight in Saitama.
A football team ranked 154th in the world will see where they stand when they take on one of the giants of Asia who have targeted World Cup victory, no less, sooner rather than later.
Singapore's German coach is under no illusions that his side will have to defend for their lives against the Blue Samurai.
The Lions will go into the match buoyed by their opening group game last Thursday when they trounced Cambodia 4-0 in Phnom Penh, but Stange knows his side will have to take a very different approach - mentally and tactically - against Japan.
"When the quality of opposition is much higher, you will need luck and unbelievable commitment to get a result," Stange said.
"It does happen that a second or third division side beat a top side in the cup, but that is seldom.
"In the end, the (higher) quality team usually decide the result... It would be a world sensation if we take a draw from Japan."
Stange, 67, has led teams like East Germany, Oman, Iraq and Belarus in a career spanning 40 years.
SLENDER WIN IN 2004
He is a wily campaigner and he believes his players are excited to compete against a Japan side who boast 13 Europe-based players, including Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda of AC Milan.
To give his charges hope, he might refer them to November 2004, the last time the two teams met.
It was also a World Cup qualifier - for the 2006 Finals - and it was also at the Saitama Stadium, where Japan won by a slender 1-0 margin.
That time, however, the Blue Samurai had already qualified for the next round.
The scenario will be very different tonight, as Japan kick off their World Cup adventure after a disastrous Asian Cup campaign in January, when they were eliminated at the quarter-final stage.
Bosnian wizard Vahid Halilhodzic has been installed as coach, taking the place of Mexican Javier Aguirre, and the new boss has masterminded three wins out of three - 2-0 against Tunisia and 5-1 against Uzbekistan in March, before a 4-0 thrashing of Iraq in Yokohama five days ago.
Halilhodzic, 62, who led French Ligue 1 sides like Lille and Paris Saint-Germain in the early 2000s, was the man in charge of the impressive Algerian team at last year's World Cup in Brazil.
He should start with an attacking formation of Honda, Kagawa and Takashi Usami (Gamba Osaka) playing behind lone striker Shinji Okazaki (FSV Mainz) as the hosts look to make an immediate impact, as they look ahead to Russia 2018.
"I know Japan will dominate us and create lots of problems. I just want us to stay calm and play without fear," Stange said.
"First, we have to stay compact in defence, then rely on our fast players for effective counter-attacks."
Stange is likely to start with the same 11 who beat Cambodia, except for star defender Safuwan Baharudin, who left for home on Sunday for family reasons.
Madhu Mohana and Zulfahmi Arifin will form the central defensive partnership, with midfielders Izzdin Shafiq and Hariss Harun in front of the back four.
Fazrul Nawaz and Hafiz Sujad will provide the width for target man Khairul Amri.
Regardless of the outcome, Stange is optimistic that the Lions can finish in the top two of Group E - which also features Syria, Afghanistan and Cambodia - and make it to third round of qualifying.
The four best runners-up across all eight groups will advance to the third round and the 2019 Asian Cup proper, while the remaining four runners-up will advance to the Asian Cup qualifying third round.
The Lions will face Syria away in their next qualifier in September. Thereafter, they will play three straight at home (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Japan).
"I believe in this team; they are intact," Stange said.
"If we don't make mistakes, I'm confident that, for the first time, we can qualify for the next round (under the new format).
"And I will try and give this confidence to the players."